News: CJ Exclusives

GOP lawmakers want to know why Cooper grabbed rural broadband money

Gov. Roy Cooper at a July 28, 2020 COVID-19 news briefing (Pool photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper at a July 28, 2020 COVID-19 news briefing (Pool photo)

Senate Republicans are asking Gov. Roy Cooper to reverse a move to eliminate relief money for rural broadband, hurting children and seniors.

A new education partnership may be the reason for the move, but 15 Republicans who wrote the governor still want an explanation. The money was originally targeted for their districts, and they say Cooper even touted the grants in his own release after he signed a COVID relief package.

Cooper failed to tell lawmakers about the broadband decision, a news release from Republicans says.

Carolina Journal emailed Cooper’s press office, asking why the governor pulled the money. CJ also asked about how Cooper plans to spend it. His press office failed to respond to CJ, which is usual.

Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, said the move is both mystifying and disturbing.

“It’s mystifying because there seemed to be pretty widespread agreement among the state’s leading political players that the money should go toward rural broadband. It’s disturbing because the governor appears to be reaching beyond his authority. Legislatures approve budgets. Governors enact those budgets. The governor is not supposed to rewrite parts of the budget that he doesn’t like.”

Cooper’s grab could be linked to the N.C. Education Corps, a new partnership between the State Board of Education, governor, local school systems and the N.C. Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. 

Cooper’s office issued a news release about the corps Friday afternoon.

“Education Corps members will provide emergency relief to public schools by employing talented community members — including current college students and recent graduates experiencing financial strain or loss of employment — to provide wraparound services to K-12 students across North Carolina,” the release says.

The Education Corps is a response to the impact COVID-19 is having on schools, as many students struggle to keep up with learning, Cooper’s release says.

It includes this key paragraph: “Compensation for Education Corps members will be provided by local school systems, which can utilize funding provided to them from North Carolina’s share of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, a part of the federal CARES Act.”

About two dozen school systems have already signed up for the program.

Education Corps members will be hired in December to work with school districts January through June tutoring students, providing technology navigation, and the like. Education Corps members will receive ongoing training and support and earn a living wage as compensation for their valuable time, the release says.

Lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill in May 2020 appropriating $9 million in federal CARES Act funding for the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology rural broadband program, a news release from Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, says.

Again in September, in a bipartisan vote, the legislature appropriated an additional $30 million in federal CARES Act funding to the GREAT program.

“The people in our rural areas desperately need broadband access,” Perry says. 

“Nothing has changed about the guidelines surrounding this funding, so it is troubling for this issue to come up now. I hope the governor will work with us to help these people. They are already expressing concerns that he is taking their funding for his pet projects. I hope they are wrong, and he chooses to help us.”

Seventy broadband providers submitted grant applications, and dozens expected awards, which would be announced soon, the release says. Many students are still receiving virtual instruction, and seniors rely heavily on telehealth. Both suffer without expanded broadband.

 The funding isn’t controversial, the lawmakers say, and it’s clearly eligible for CARES Act money. 

“State law grants the Executive Branch flexibility in reallocating CARES Act money only if there is no reasonable expectation of expending funds by Dec. 30,” the letter to Cooper reads. “But more than 70 grant applicants have submitted proposals, and a priority list of who should receive the grants was created by the Department of Information Technology staff as recommendations for approval.

“It is clear that a reasonable expectation of awards before Dec. 30 exists because dozens of providers expected to receive an award this month.”