By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
April 29, 2020
Lawmakers — many in masks and keeping their distance from one another — gathered in Raleigh Tuesday to begin hashing out how best to help the state weather COVID-19, including exactly how to spend roughly half of the $6 billion in federal CARES Act funding headed to the Tar Heel State.
To kick off the session, which is expected to last just days or weeks, the Senate filed a bill that would earmark $2.4 billion for personal protective equipment, virus testing, long-term Coronavirus studies, vaccine development and more. According to the bill, some $671 million could land in emergency education relief funds. The proposal also includes $125 million to support small business loans, $70 million for summer learning programs and $42.4 million for the UNC System to move classes online and sanitize campuses before reopening.
Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said all senators “from Cullowhee to Currituck,” have had a say in the appropriations bill.
“Now that the General Assembly is back in Raleigh, it’s time for us to pass this bill to help North Carolinians move past this crisis and begin to move toward reopening the state,” he said.
Similarly, Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said legislation filed in the House this week had been developed by bipartisan working groups which convened remotely all month to produce “robust, transparent proposals to help North Carolinians through the pandemic.”
The state anticipates a $2.5 billion to $3 billion shortfall next year as a result of delayed tax-filing deadlines, and some leaders want the federal government to relax CARES Act rules so that funding could be held to plug those holes. But others say the need is greatest right now, especially for businesses that have had to shut their doors. While the state is set to receive $6 billion overall, some of that money is headed directly to cities hardest hit by the virus.
In the House, bills were filed Tuesday to fund low-interest small business loans and address a number of educational woes brought on by the COVID lockdown. One bill would provide more medical supplies and allow Medicaid money to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment. Another would broaden access to and fast-track unemployment benefits for workers displaced during the pandemic.
The House also took up proposals aimed at keeping government agencies operating even in the midst of ongoing social-distancing rules; for example, extending DMV deadlines, permitting video notarizations and allowing the remote convening of local government bodies.
To be able to even entertain the bills while complying with CDC guidelines, representatives had to amend their own rules. They voted to expand their voting window from 15 seconds to 40 minutes and to let questions be submitted off the floor. Caucus leaders will be able to vote for designated members of their parties and official committees will be allowed to meet remotely.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Acton League, said tracking legislative action and lobbying lawmakers will be more difficult in the new social-distancing environment.
“Because only legislators, their staff, and some members of the media are allowed in the Legislative Building, we will have to monitor things as closely as possible online,” Creech said. “Whatever participation we can have in the process will also have to be electronic. So it’s really important, very important, that our folks follow our information via The Christian Action League Insider and Urgent Action Alerts.”
The Senate is offering livestream video of sessions to help keep the process open to the public, since people are not allowed in the gallery. Once the session is over, lawmakers will adjourn until July or August.