News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. General Assembly passes COVID-19 relief bills 

State Senate leader Phil Berger (foreground) and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow. (CJ file photo)
State Senate leader Phil Berger (foreground) and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow. (CJ file photo)

The N.C. General Assembly passed two bills to deal with fallout from COVID-19. 

The General Assembly’s 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act was separated into two sections. House Bill 1043 covered money, and Senate Bill 704 addressed a variety of policy changes. The bills were a compromise between the House and Senate after a couple of days negotiations behind closed doors. Both passed unanimously Saturday, May 2, and were sent to Gov. Roy Cooper.

“This recovery and relief bill is the product of bipartisan collaboration to help North Carolinians return to their daily lives,” said House and Senate leaders in a news release

Initially, the House wanted to spend $1.7 billion; the Senate wanted $1.3 billion. The final total came to about $1.6 billion, which will be appropriated from the $3.5 billion the federal government available to North Carolina through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

The Senate is awaiting federal changes to guidance about how North Carolina can spend roughly $470 million provided under the CARES Act. About $300 million is set to go to the N.C. Department of Transportation, $150 million would go to local governments, and $20 million would offset lost receipts in other state agencies — payments like admission fees, memberships, and hunting licenses. Both pots are only usable if the federal government changes the rules to allow North Carolina to spend the money on gaps left by unpaid and late taxes. Another $150 million is in a reserve for local governments.

Under H.B. 1043, the University of North Carolina System and the N.C. Community College System will get $44 million and $25 million, respectively, for online learning and other COVID-19-related expenses. Private colleges and universities get $20 million. 

Seventy million dollars will pay for “continuity of state operations,” including overtime pay for staffers at prisons, mental health centers, and veterans’ homes. Some of that money will be used to pay for a call center for the N.C. Division of Employment Security, which received 943,403 unemployment claims since March 15. 

The Senate wanted to bump the maximum weekly state benefit for unemployment insurance from $350 to $400, but that measure was left out of the final bill. 

Small businesses will get the boost Senate members wanted, with $125 million appropriated to The Golden LEAF Foundation for loans to companies with fewer than 100 employees. The House originally proposed $75 million for that purpose. 

The House ended up getting some of the money it wanted for electronic devices for students and teachers, cybersecurity, school health, and internet connectivity. 

The House wanted to spend $40 million on Medicaid services, but that provision was dropped from the final agreement. It does boost provider payments by 5%, on top of a 5% increase DHHS already planned.

About $9 million for broadband internet was included in the final package. 

The House still got money for rural, teaching, and general hospitals in the compromise bill, though the amounts were lower than what the House originally appropriated. The House wanted $75 million for rural hospitals, and $25 million for teaching and general hospitals. They ended up getting $65 million and $15 million for those categories, respectively. 

N.C. Community Health Centers Association will get the $5 million the Senate wanted. Rural and underserved communities will get $50 million — closer to the $61 million the Senate wanted compared to the $25 million from the House. 

Wake Forest University will get $20 million for antibody testing. The project was a priority for both the House and the Senate.    

Money wasn’t the only point of contention. The two chambers disagreed on policy, too. 

The House passed a provision that would have allowed restaurants to sell cocktails with takeout orders, but the measure didn’t survive negotiations. 

Lawmakers were trying to reach “broad consensus” for all parts of the bill, said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. The takeout provision for cocktails didn’t pass that test, so it was nixed. 

“I’m disappointed, but will keep trying when we’re back in session in a few weeks or a month,” tweeted Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. McGrady has long advocated for easing alcohol regulations in North Carolina. 

During committees Saturday, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, questioned the Senate’s decision to bar a provision for takeout cocktails. It’s a common sense provision for businesses to make money, Chaudhuri said. The profit margin on alcohol sales is sizable.

The provision belonged in another bill, said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, and not in the COVID-19 relief package. 

Provisions allowing for a temporary, targeted expansion of Medicaid failed to make the cut. The original House bill expanded Medicaid coverage to people making less than 200% below the poverty line to receive COVID-19 treatment. 

The House and Senate said they would reconvene next week, but no votes are expected. House working groups will continue to meet in the coming weeks.