News: CJ Exclusives

General Assembly unanimously passes first Hurricane Florence relief package

A resident of Topsail Beach protects his home in the hours before Hurricane Florence hit in September. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
A resident of Topsail Beach protects his home in the hours before Hurricane Florence hit in September. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

State lawmakers told tales of destruction of and struggles in hurricane-battered communities before unanimously approving $56.5 million spread over two emergency response bills.

Debate was muted as members voted on the bipartisan measures, which House and Senate appropriations subcommittees approved earlier Tuesday, Oct. 2. With schools and roads still closed, residents homeless, businesses inoperable, and public health at risk, providing immediate assistance overshadowed election season politics.

“I have a town that is now gone. It does not exist anymore. The Town of Fair Bluff is off the map,” said state Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Columbus, encouraging passage of the bills during House debate.

House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 2 addressed issues ranging from school pay and calendars to community relief programs and emergency election measures.

Tuesday’s Hurricane Florence relief session marked the third special session of 2018. Lawmakers adjourned after passing the two bills. They had been set to return Oct. 9, but pushed the date to Oct. 15.

“We still have over 100,000 students who are not in school,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson told the appropriations committees. More than 1.2 million students missed some school days due to the hurricane. Initial estimates suggest damage to school property was three times the loss from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

The legislative action is “the first step in a very long road to recovery,” Johnson said.

School teachers and staff have lost their clothing and school supplies, he said. They have lost their shelters and homes.

State Budget Director Charlie Perusse said hundreds of state emergency management and FEMA personnel are conducting damage assessments. Gov. Roy Cooper may announce his recovery plan within a couple of weeks.

State Sen. Mike Lee, R-New Hanover, and other lawmakers acknowledged the bills don’t address the myriad problems residents face. Hurricane-relief measures may occupy the General Assembly deep into the 2019 session, Lee said.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, chief budget writer in the House, said under H.B. 4 the $56.5 million in emergency response funding — considered a down payment for a much larger tab — would be transferred from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to a newly created Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund.

The Office of State Budget and Management or another state agency determined by the governor would administer the money as a special account. State and federal relief and recovery appropriations would be budgeted through that fund.

The bill appropriates $6.5 million to the Department of Public Instruction to supplement lost compensation for school lunch employees. They are paid through national school lunch and breakfast programs that rely on school meal receipts or federal funds. The money isn’t available when school isn’t in session.  

The other $50 million provides a state match for federal disaster assistance programs in counties that are part of a presidential major disaster declaration.

Money would be used to combat large populations of floodwater mosquitoes and to distribute information on dealing with the infestation.

Division of Motor Vehicles fees would be waived under the bill for duplicate driver’s licenses or identification cards, applications for certificates of title, registration plate replacements, applications for duplicate registration cards, and late payments of a motor vehicle registration renewal fee.  

The bill addresses disruptions to activities related to the Nov. 6 general election.

It extends the voter registration deadline by three days in counties under federal disaster declarations to Oct. 15 and same-day registration to the county board of elections to Oct. 20. Same-day registration is available during early voting.

County boards of elections can replace hurricane-damaged polling places and early voting sites by unanimous board votes. New one-stop absentee voting sites can replace hurricane-damaged locations.

The bill requires the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and county boards to inform voters of changes, and their options to register and vote.

S.B. 2 allows school districts in presidentially declared disaster counties to designate up to 20 school days, or the equivalent hours of instructional time, as completed. Districts could opt to make up any number of instructional days or hours missed.  

Teachers and staff would be paid the same as if they had worked scheduled instructional days during September and October.

School districts not under a federal disaster declaration must make up either the first two instructional days missed, or enough class time to complete 185 instructional days, whichever is lower.

The bills were sent to Cooper, who is expected to sign them quickly.