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The North Carolina General Assembly will reconvene Tuesday, April 28 at 12:00. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming session will look different than those in the past. Legislative leadership announced that only members, essential staff, and credentialed media will be allowed to enter the legislature. Anyone entering the building will have their temperature checked upon entry. Additionally, members will be given more time to cast floor votes and will continue to conduct committee meetings virtually to ensure social distancing. Session is anticipated to last through May 8 to take up critical COVID-19 related bills. The General Assembly will then adjourn to a date to be determined in the summer to consider additional COVID-19 related legislation and “normal” short session topics such as tax reform, Medicaid expansion, school safety, constitutional amendments, and local bills.
For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website, and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.
Stay up to date on what’s happening in North Carolina politics by following us on Twitter @KeepnUpWJonesSt.
Governor Roy Cooper signed E.O. 135 Thursday, April 23, extending the statewide stay-at-home order through May 8. North Carolina is seeing the COVID-19 curve flatten, but is not yet in a position to ease social distancing restrictions. Gov. Cooper released a three-phase plan that would slowly rollback restrictions and re-open businesses affected by the pandemic. The Governor, along with top state health and emergency officials, are aiming to reopen the state cautiously based on downward-trending data and increased testing capabilities. The Governor’s plan is as follows:
- Stay-at-home order remains in place, people can leave home for commercial activity
- Reopening retailers and services will need to implement social distancing, cleaning and other protocols
- Gatherings are still limited to no more than 10 people
- Parks can open subject to gathering limits
- Face coverings are recommended in public
- Restrictions remain in place for nursing homes and other congregate living settings
- Encouraging continued teleworking
PHASE 2 (at least two to three weeks after Phase 1):
- Lift the stay-at-home order with strong encouragement for vulnerable populations to continue staying at home
- Allow limited opening of restaurants, bars and other businesses that can follow strict safety protocols and reduced capacity
- Allow gathering at houses of worship and entertainment venues at reduced capacity
- Increase the number of people allowed at gatherings
- Open public playgrounds
- Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes
PHASE 3 (at least four to six weeks after Phase 2):
- Ease restrictions for vulnerable populations while encouraging social distancing
- Allow increased capacity at restaurants, bars, other businesses, churches, and entertainment venues
- Further increase the number of people allowed at gatherings
- Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes
The House Select Committee on COVID-19, Economic Support Working Group met Tuesday, April 21. The group heard the Small Business Emergency Loans bill draft, a broadband infrastructure update from the Department of Information Technology (DIT), a funding update from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and received a briefing from the state Division of Employment Security (DES).
The Small Business Emergency Loans bill draft, if passed, would provide emergency loans for businesses suffering economic loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state is expected to appropriate $75 million if the bill passes during the upcoming COVID-19 session.The bill would prioritize businesses with 100 or fewer employees at the time of the declaration of the State of Emergency. For the first six months after the loan closing, the loans would have no payments due and an interest rate of up to 4%. Thereafter, repayment would commence and the interest rate would increase to not less than 5.5% for the rest of the loan term which is capped at a total of 66 months in the amount of $50,000 per recipient. Loan recipients would be required to repay their loans if they receive federal assistance. The working group passed the bill draft unanimously.
Jeff Sural, Director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office, updated the group on what DIT is doing to address the broadband gap across the state. It is estimated that 269,000 households across the state lack adequate internet access. Local governments and school districts have worked with internet service providers to transform school buses into hot spots for the community as a short term solution. Long term, DIT would like to expand its broadband grant program to $135 million per yer, ensure adequate federal funding, tweak the program to allow higher speeds while allowing new satellite internet services to participate, and encourage internet providers to extend low-cost internet solutions to rural and under-served communities.
Thomas Stith III, Director of NC SBA, spoke with the group on the status of SBA funding to North Carolinians. Congress passed the CARES Act which included the paycheck protection program provision (PPP) funded at $50 billion. North Carolina received about $8 billion of those funds which are still in the process of being distributed. Additionally, the CARES Act has an advance provision which provided up to $10,000 in grant money to small businesses. Both the PPP and the advance grant provision funds were exhausted late last week. Stith advised the group that the SBA had done 14 years of loans in 14 days, leaving the appropriated funds dry. Congress is currently debating additional funding to the PPP up to $300 billion. Legislators relayed to Stith that it would be important for Congress to set stricter guidelines upon lenders so funds are better accounted for.
Finally, the group heard from Lockhart Taylor, Assistant Secretary for DES. The division has received over 600,000 unemployment claims since March 15 and averaged 80,000 calls per day last week. DES has continued to ramp up its call center staff by repurposing non-essential staff to call center agents. The goal is to be able to answer up to 33,000 calls per day and cut down on wait times. So far, 257,000 individuals have received unemployment insurance benefits totaling $587 million due to COVID-19. Friday, the division will begin to expand benefits to those who are self-employed or contractors. DES says they will continue to add as many employees as needed to ensure that every North Carolinian who files for unemployment benefits receives their money.
Continuity of State Operations
The Continuity of State Operations Working Group reviewed their COVID-19 Time Sensitive Matter bill draft. The group was tasked with ensuring the viability of state agencies and operations during the pandemic. Highlights of the bill include requiring the removal of masks when stopped by law enforcement, allowing the oath of office for new attorneys to be administered via video, allowing medical examiners to dispose of bodies under certain conditions, allowing notaries to perform acknowledgments via video, and delaying the 2018 provision that required the NC Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters be moved to Rocky Mount.
Notably, the bill draft would reduce the amount of cash that NCDOT is legally required to have. The draft lowers the agency’s cash floor from $300 million to $125 million. Due to decreased gas tax revenue, the agency expects losses of $45 million in April, $90 million in May, and around $80 million in June. The NC Department of Transportation has told legislators that they expect about a $300 million shortfall this fiscal year and announced layoffs of contract and temporary workers earlier this week due to the loss of revenue.
You can see the summary of the bill here.
COVID-19 Health Care Working Group
The Health Care Working Group convened to vote on two draft bills to address COVID-19. COVID-19 Health Care Working Group Policy Recommendations and COVID-19 Health Care Working Group Funding Recommendations both received favorable motions as amended. The policy bill, if passed, would enact several provisions designed to improve the state’s response to COVID-19 and any other future pandemics. Highlights of the bill include creating a state stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE), providing support to healthcare providers to respond to COVID-19, increasing the Department of Health and Human services flexibility to respond to the pandemic, and increasing access to healthcare through telehealth services. Rep. Perrin Jones (R-Pitt), who is an Anesthesiologist, amended the bill to give healthcare providers additional protections from malpractice lawsuits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Members agreed that since there is no standard-based practice on how to handle COVID-19 and many facilities are operating without the proper equipment, the amendment was necessary to protect the integrity of the healthcare system during this unprecedented time.
The group also passed a separate appropriations bill which would enhance the capacity for public and behavioral health crisis services, fund additional Medicaid-related costs because of COVID-19, fund an increase in the State’s supply of PPE and safety supplies, enhance tracking, tracing, and analysis of the pandemic, allocate monies to food, safety, shelter, and childcare expenses, provide support to rural and under served communities, provide relief to hospitals, and allocate additional funding for COVID-19-related research. Both bills can be amended further and will be heard during next week’s full House Healthcare Committee.
COVID-19 Education Working Group
Rep. John Fraley (R-Iredell) chaired the COVID-19 Education Working Group that met to hear budget requests, recommendations, and proposed legislation to assist schools across the state. Eric Davis, Chair of the NC State Board of Education, presented projected school expenditures and funding request to the group. The request is a joint response from the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction that includes input from teachers, administrators, local school districts, and charter schools. The entities have requested a total of $380 million in funding from the General Assembly. Funding priorities include:
- Child nutrition programs and supplemental compensation for essential employees-$80 Million
- Student support staff and resources for the physical and mental well being of students–$55 Million
- Continued services for children –$17.9 Million
- Resources for digital and remote teaching and learning–Approximately $153 Million
- Jump Summer Bridge program –$70 Million
- Other funding priorities– $6.3 Million
The group continued to review the bill draft for Education Omnibus/COVID-19 which, if passed, would allow for remote instruction to satisfy statutory instructional time requirements, supplementary summer instruction in August 2020, and would allow public school units to begin the school year as early as August 17, 2020. This version of the draft also allows for increased budget flexibility for local boards of education and delays K-3 class size reduction. All of the provisions in the bill are temporary in order to address COVID-19. Higher Education funding requests were not included in the proposed legislation. The committee will wait for legislative leadership and the Governor to agree on a university funding package. All federal dollars received will be appropriated through one appropriations bill that will be voted on during the upcoming session.