RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Before telling the unemployed that they must live on $350 a week, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory should try doing it himself, advocates for the jobless said at a news conference Monday.
Advocates challenged McCrory and legislators — who will soon consider a bill to lower the maximum unemployment benefit to $350 weekly from about $535 — to live on that amount themselves for one week.
"On behalf of the over 400,000 North Carolinians currently unemployed, we dare him to make the same sacrifice for one week that he is asking the rest of us to make until he can turn this economy around," said Kevin Rogers, policy director for Action NC, the challenge sponsor. "Governor, the ball is in your court. This is your challenge."
The bill is meant to pay off the $2.5 billion that North Carolina owes the federal government for money it borrowed to pay unemployment benefits three years earlier than would happen if legislators took no action. Legislators say it also would deposit $2 billion in a trust by the early part of the next decade — money that the state could use to pay benefits in the next recession.
The state shouldn't pay that bill on the backs of the unemployed, the advocates said, especially in a state where one job is available for every three people searching.
"There are not enough jobs in this state for all the people who want to work," said Bill Rowe, general counsel and director of advocacy for the N.C. Justice Center. "That's why we have people on unemployment benefits."
North Carolina's unemployment is consistently higher than the national average — 9.2 percent in December, compared with 7.8 percent for the country. As the rate increased, the number of people looking for jobs also increased.
For the week ended Jan. 12, the number of North Carolinians seeking unemployment benefits fell by 5,541, due to fewer layoffs in textiles, business services, construction and transportation and warehousing
In addition to the cuts in benefits, the legislative proposal also would eliminate eligibility for people who can't accept a shift with new hours because of personal issues such as day care or elder care, the advocates said.
"And that is eliminated not because it costs so much or there is some savings, but it appears to just be out of some mean-spiritedness, to be honest with you," Rowe said.
Another possible change deals with the timing of benefit cuts. McCrory told WRAL-TV that he would decide this week whether to make the changes in July, which would cut off federal benefits to those without jobs the longest, who total about 85,000 in North Carolina.
The jobless now get 26 weeks of state benefits, followed by extended benefits that the federal government pays. As part of the fiscal cliff deal, those federal benefits end if North Carolina changes its unemployment rules in 2013.
"I know the challenge is about living on $350 a week," Rowe said. "But the challenge for many people if this proposal is put through is having nothing, living on zero."
Those federal benefits bring about $25 million a week to the state economy, he said.
The proposed cuts are especially painful when compared with the 8 percent combined raises that McCrory gave to his Cabinet secretaries, advocates said. McCrory's Cabinet now makes $1.1 million altogether. Previous salaries were $121,807 for each of the eight; four now make $135,000, an 11 percent increase.
In an interview this month with The News & Observer of Raleigh, McCrory said he was "trying to make it at least where they can afford to live while running multibillion-dollar departments."
"Gov. McCrory: If your Cabinet secretaries can't live on more than $120,000 a year, how the heck are the rest of us supposed to live on less than $15,000?" Rogers asked.
Rogers, his staff and Rowe also will live on $350 for one week if McCrory agrees to do so, he said.
"Each and every one of us, every single day, is one day away from being unemployed," Rogers said. "Except, of course, for the governor. We want him to understand what he's asking this state to accept. ... We're asking him to take the 350 challenge."
A McCrory spokeswoman said she would have a response later.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc