Editor’s note: This story was updated to include amendments adopted, the floor vote, and a new spending total.
The N.C. Senate on Wednesday evening passed by a 48-0 vote a $1.3-billion bill distributing money for COVID-19 relief statewide.
Senate Bill 704, introduced late Tuesday, April 28, includes dozens of emergency relief items — all appropriating money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee approved the bill Wednesday, April 29.
The Senate recessed several times before returning and passing the measure well after 7 p.m. Wednesday. Lawmakers proposed seven amendments, mostly technical corrections. All but one passed.
An amendment from Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, was originally temporarily held for discussion but was ultimately withdrawn. The move, similar to the bill in the House, would have allowed restaurants to serve mixed drinks in sealed, to-go cups with meals.
The $1.3-billion plan, among other things, includes $50 million to stockpile supplies such as disinfectants, ventilators, and thermometers, $125 million for small business loans, $70 million for summer learning programs, and $70 million for an assortment of government functions including overtime pay for staff at prisons and veterans’ homes, sanitation supplies, and a call center for the N.C. Division of Employment Security.
The University of North Carolina System, which is holding online classes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is slotted to get $42.4 million under the Senate’s plan. The money will help pay for distance learning, campus sanitation, and other coronavirus-related expenses. UNC interim President Bill Roper announced Wednesday he expects campuses to reopen in the fall. The system is still working to “chart a course forward,” Roper said.
S.B. 704 includes $300 million in relief for the N.C. Department of Transportation — if the federal government allows it. Under current guidance, the state must spend all of nearly $3.5 billion on new costs linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Senate leaders are hopeful the feds will change those rules. S.B. 704 calls for another $300 million that local governments can use to fill budget shortfalls — another measure that requires permission from the feds.
“We’re still getting a lot of guidance from the federal government about how we can spend these dollars,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We don’t want to spend all the money up front. We’re trying to be cautious but also take care of what we know are immediate needs. It’s gonna be months before we know all the information and how best to attack it.”
Senate Democrats expressed concern that S.B. 704 doesn’t include money for the N.C. State Board of Elections — which is asking for $2.1 million from the General Assembly. If given, those dollars will trigger a federal match of more than $10.9 million.
“We will need these funds to conduct the June 23 Republican Second Primary in Congressional District 11,” NCSBE Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell wrote to the legislature in an April 29 letter.
No legislation addressing this issue is filed in the Senate or the House, Bell wrote.
“Without these funds, voters who go to the polls for the second primary in June or the general election [in] November may find that there is not enough hand sanitizer, that they must reuse dirty pens and styluses, and that election officials do not have personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and protective shields to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The legislature will return in a few weeks to deal with the NCSBE’s concerns, said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson. Jackson, along with Brown and Sen. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, is a chairman of the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee.
Other notable items in S.B. 704 include $15 million for COVID-19 research and vaccines, $10 million for independent colleges and universities, and $5 million for a marketing campaign to promote safe tourism in the state. After lawmakers revised the bill late Wednesday night — moving some money into different categories — the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services received $25 million for food banks, community support, and homeless and domestic violence shelters, among other things.
Consistent with House plans for coronavirus relief, S.B. 704 waives interest on individual and corporate taxes that formerly were due April 15, so long as those taxes are paid by July 15. It also shores up flexibility for unemployment insurance payments from DES, and temporarily extends deadlines for documents issued by the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.