News: Quick Takes

CJ politics week in review, Aug. 31-Sept. 4

Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed.

COVID-19 relief: The General Assembly passed a third massive COVID-19 relief package with a $1 billion price tag. House Bill 1105, aka the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, passed with a large consensus in the House and Senate, despite some political posturing from Democratic lawmakers over a lack of Medicaid expansion. Only 10 house Democrats and five Senate Democrats voted against the bill. Included in the package is money for more resources to combat COVID-19, raises for election poll workers, natural disaster relief, and money to raise weekly unemployment benefits by $50. The package also sets aside money for parents to receive $325 to offset costs related to remote learning, expands the Opportunity Scholarship program, and eliminates waitlists for the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and the Education Savings Account Program. H.B. 1105 now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk for his signature. 

Graduation rates: High school graduation rates increased again this year, going from 86.5% in 2019 to 87.6% in 2020. The graduation rate for all sub-groups exceeded 80% except for students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. “Students need to know that there are many different career pathways they can pursue,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said, “but graduating from high school is the first step that all students must take for whatever path they choose. COVID-19 could’ve helped boost the numbers. After schools closed for in-person instruction, the State Board of Education directed schools to let high school seniors graduate if their grades were passing as of March 13. School districts also weren’t allowed to require more than the minimum 22 credits typically needed to graduate. 

Friendly reminder: Don’t try and vote twice, seriously. Karen Brinson Bell, the N.C. State Board of Elections director, sent that reminder to voters in a news release Thursday, Sept. 3. “Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law,” Bell said. The warning comes a day after President Trump suggested North Carolinians should go to the polls and check to see whether their absentee ballot was counted. If it wasn’t, they should go ahead and vote in-person, Trump said. The NCSBE strongly discourages people from showing up to the polls on Election Day to learn whether their absentee ballot was counted, Bell said. “That is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading COVID-19,” she said. Voters can go online, call their local elections board, or sign up for BallotTrax when it launches to check the status of their absentee ballot. 

Above average: North Carolina ranked above the national average in K-12 achievement in Education Week’s Quality Counts 2020. The K-12 Achievement Index scores states on 18 education metrics, including reading and math scores and graduation rates. North Carolina earned a C overall, scoring 73.5 on the index. The national average is 72.8. Other Southeast states, such as Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida scored higher than North Carolina. When it comes to equity, Education Week looked at how education funding is equitably distributed across districts within a state. Here, North Carolina scored better, earning a B with an 86.3 score. 

State pension plan: State Treasurer Dale Folwell wants Raleigh to “get out of the way” of the economy. Folwell is calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to reopen businesses. He warned of dire economic consequences if the “one-size-fits-all” shutdowns continue. The state pension plan reached a record $108.1 billion in late August — up from its slide toward $93.6 billion during the first months of the shutdown. Folwell credited conservative management for the plan’s growth, even as other states struggled to make up major losses from the pandemic. But the plan’s success defies the coronavirus-induced recession. “I’ve never seen a larger disconnect between what the stock market is doing and what I observe boots on the ground,” Folwell said Tuesday, Sept. 1, in his monthly “Ask Me Anything” press conference. “Either the economy is going to be wrong, or the stock market is going to be wrong.”