News: Quick Takes

House, Senate enter negotiations on COVID-19 relief package

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, at a May 2018 news conference. (CJ Photo by Don Carrington)
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, at a May 2018 news conference. (CJ Photo by Don Carrington)

Appropriation leaders in the House and Senate are busy working behind closed doors to find consensus on a COVID-19 relief package.  

The House approved a $1.7-billion omnibus bill Thursday, April 30, a day after the Senate passed its 1.3-billion version. The two chambers will now hash out their differences to pass a single appropriations bill to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

The plan is for the appropriations chairs from the House and Senate to negotiate a compromise. The compromises would come in proposed committee substitutes for House Bill 1043 and Senate Bill 704. The two chambers would then pass and concur with the respective bills. 

Battle lines are drawn. 

Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, simply described the House bill as perfect and the Senate’s as not so perfect. House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said he was disappointed about what the Senate left out of its bill. 

The Senate, too, made clear its views on the matter. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, published a news release indirectly chastising the House for spending more money. 

“Do we really want, six months from now, to be thinking that we wish we would’ve saved some more of the CARES Act money so we didn’t have to find hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding cuts?” Brown asked. 

The House version spends $1.7 billion compared to the $1.3 billion S.B. 704 appropriates. Both bills draw money from the $3.5-billion pot the federal government sent to North Carolina through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

The House wants to appropriate $110 million for the COVID-19 Response Research Fund to support N.C. universities studying the virus and seeking a vaccine or antiviral treatment. The Senate, on the other hand, appropriates a significantly smaller amount — $15 million — for a similar initiative. 

Where the Senate appropriates more money is for rural and underserved communities, small business loans for Golden LEAF Foundation, animal depopulation, and a safe tourism initiative. 

Unlike the House, the Senate doesn’t appropriate anything for mobile devices for students and teachers, cybersecurity, student health, or services for children with disabilities. Neither does the Senate provide money for Medicaid services. The House bill spends $40 million.

Money isn’t the only difference between the two bills. While the House bill allows restaurants to sell mixed beverages in sealed containers alongside takeout orders, the Senate version doesn’t. Under the House bill, local governments can borrow to finance or refinance projects with special obligation bonds and notes. That’s not in the Senate bill. 

Despite the apparent differences, Moore said he was optimistic an agreement could be reached, but ultimately negotiations will continue into the next day. The House is scheduled to gavel in at 11 a.m. Friday.