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Busy first day as N.C. General Assembly opens for pandemic session

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, presides over the first live video stream of the N.C. House, April 28, 2020. (Screenshot from YouTube)
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, presides over the first live video stream of the N.C. House, April 28, 2020. (Screenshot from YouTube)

The N.C. General Assembly is in session, but it’s unclear how long it may take lawmakers to deal with economic fallout caused by COVID-19 . 

Lawmakers converged on the legislative complex to begin work as a few hundred people gathered in downtown Raleigh to protest shutdown orders from Gov. Roy Cooper. 

The House gaveled in at noon, Tuesday, April 28, and streamed video from the chamber. Only a handful of members took seats on the floor as rules were changed to allow social distancing during proceedings. The Senate also opened but took up no business Tuesday. 

At 5 p.m., 46 senators filed Senate Bill 704, COVID-19 Recovery Act. The legislation calls for $1.24 billion from money provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The number is roughly $500 million less than the House’s proposal.

A Senate committee will consider the measure Wednesday morning.

Things were more raucous outside the Legislative Building. Some members of ReopenNC, a private Facebook group with 70,000 followers, filled the sidewalks to demand Cooper lift a statewide stay-at-home order. If Cooper failed to act, the group urged members to reopen their businesses and attend worship services May 1. 

Four members of the group, including co-founder Ashley Smith and her husband, Adam, were arrested when they defied police orders and stepped on the sidewalk in front of the Executive Mansion. 

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Cooper didn’t mention the protesters at an afternoon news conference. But he did say he would be open to allowing the Charlotte Motor Speedway to host the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend if COVID-19 conditions continued improving. The speedway wouldn’t allow any fans, only drivers, crews, and media.

House Finance Committee

Members of the House Finance Committee unanimously approved two bills to help cash-strapped North Carolinians. House Bill 1039, COVID-19 Response Act: Economic Support, waives interest on individual and corporate income tax, as well as franchise taxes. The bill brings North Carolina in line with federal tax filing deadlines, which in March were pushed from April 15 to July 15. 

H.B. 1039 firms up North Carolina’s flexibility to send unemployment benefits to people who lost their jobs to the pandemic, as laid out in several of Cooper’s executive orders and in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security Act. 

A second piece of legislation, House Bill 1034, Small Business Emergency Loans, pays $75 million in federal money to small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. The money would be doled out via the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit created by the General Assembly in 1999 to administer grants to rural and poor communities. 

The finance committee unanimously passed H.B. 1034. Both H.B. 1039 and H.B. 1034 are headed to the House Rules Committee. 

House Health Care Committee

Later in the day, House lawmakers approved House Bill 1037, Health Care Working Group Policy Recommendations, in a 29-10 vote. The legislation stockpiles personal protective equipment and testing supplies. It allows more health care workers to give vaccines, diagnostics, and antibody tests. The most controversial part of the bill grants health care providers protection from liability lawsuits during the pandemic. 

The bill temporarily expands Medicaid to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment for uninsured residents with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level. 

The bill requires insurers and health plans to cover telehealth services, and to reimburse telehealth providers at the same rate as in-person visits. It also brings parity to telephone visits to help seniors and rural residents receive virtual care. 

The bill effectively suspends physician supervision during the pandemic. It bans regulatory boards from enforcing the mandate that nurse practitioners must pay for a physician supervisor. Other providers get loosened regulations, inspections, and reporting requirements, as well as more time to connect to the state’s health information exchange network. 

The bill requests a pandemic health care workforce study to investigate the ability of the health care system to treat patients during the pandemic. The purpose of the study is to analyze support for health care workers and assess the costs of canceling non-essential services. 

Representatives expect to pass another coronavirus response bill from the same committee in May. House Bill 1037 is “a phase one bill” that’s up for discussion in the House Rules Committee Wednesday, said Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forysth. 

House K-12 Education Committee

The House Committee on Education K-12 unanimously approved an education omnibus bill to provide relief for the state’s K-12 public schools and higher education institutions as the COVID-19 outbreak continues. 

Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 significantly disrupted the 2019-20 school year. Schools have closed for in-person instruction for most of 2020 and will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Remote learning has replaced the brick-and-mortar classroom — at least for the time being. 

House Bill 1035, Education Omnibus/COVID-19, includes a variety of waivers for state tests, teacher licensure, K-3 class size reductions, and education program requirements, as well as calendar flexibility to start the school year as early as Aug. 17. 

The measures are temporary and apply only to the 2020-21 school year.

H.B 1035 is a bipartisan effort from the House Select Committee on COVID-19 education working group. The working group met several times in virtual meetings before the short session.  

“This was a culmination of a lot of work and collaboration to assure we address all the issues immediately in front of us,” said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a co-chair of the education working group. 

Tackling the COVID-19 issue felt like standing in front of a forest fire armed with only a squirt gun, Horn said.

More work will be done to address the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the subsequent school closures, Horn said. 

The April 28 meeting was short. Lawmakers approved the legislation without debate.

Reporting by Kari Travis, Lindsay Marchello, and Julie Havlak.