Pardon Our Dust
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North Carolina lawmakers have not wasted any time jumping back into work for the 2021 legislative session, packing this week with committee meetings, floor votes, and plenty of bill filings. This week also started with a major milestone for the entire state, as the one-millionth dose of the coronavirus vaccine was administered Monday. North Carolina has now administered 1,195,369 doses of the vaccine. For more information on vaccine distribution in North Carolina or when you may be eligible to get your first shot, click here.
As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 781,802 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 9,081,685 completed tests, 9,728 deaths, and 2,630 current hospitalizations. As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.
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.
Students throughout the state may be heading back to the classroom for in-person instruction sooner rather than later as the state’s top lawmakers, elected officials, and education leaders pushed for schools to reopen. Whether school districts will come to that decision on their own or be required to by law is still up in the air. SB 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families moved through the Senate this week and will receive a final vote early next week. The bill would require all local boards of education to provide some form of in-person instruction for students grade K-12 for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year. Schools would be able to offer either Plan A, complete in-person instruction with minimal social distancing requirements, or Plan B, a hybrid of both in-person and remote instruction with moderate social distancing requirements, to all students K-12. Schools would be required to offer instruction under Plan A to all special education students with an IEP or a 504 plan. Plan C, remote instruction only, would still be an option for those who would prefer to stick with remote learning. The bill gives districts the discretion to close a classroom or school should there be an increase in positive coronavirus cases or a staffing shortage. If the district does decide it needs to close a school, it would need to be reported to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) within 72 hours.
SB 37 leaves much of the operational logistics of reopening schools up to the discretion of the district so long as all schools follow the health and safety protocols outlined in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidance document, StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12). For example, districts would be able to choose between Plan A or Plan B, or may allow teachers who are high-risk and do not feel safe returning to the classroom just yet to continue teaching their students remotely while a proctor remains in-person with the students.
On the same day the bill was discussed for the first time in the Senate Education Committee, Governor Roy Cooper (D) held a press conference alongside DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, DPI Superintendent Catherine Truitt (R), and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis urging local boards of education to reopen schools for in-person instruction. Cooper emphasized that all schools should be following and implementing strong mitigation and prevention strategies, like those outlined in the DHHS toolkit, while also maintaining a virtual option for those who choose to stay with remote learning. Governor Cooper said that this public push is what the local school districts were looking for before taking the step to fully reopen for in-person instruction. When asked if he would support SB 37 or veto it, the Governor stated that he takes issues with the bill and does not support it because he does not believe that legislation is the way to go about getting students back into the classroom. Cooper also noted that he was hesitant about signing the bill because it changes some of the health and safety guidelines his administration has provided.
Based on the handful of recent studies that have reported low transmission rates in schools with in-person instruction for grades K-5, DHHS recommends fully reopening schools for only K-5 students and not those grades 6-12 as there is not much data on transmission rates in middle and high schools. However, SB 37 requires schools to reopen for all K-12 students – the main point of contention between lawmakers who support the bill and those that do not, as well as the Governor.
It is still unclear exactly how and when schools will reopen. Senate lawmakers will hold a final vote on SB 37 next week. The bill will still have to make its way through the House before Governor Cooper will decide what he wants to do with the bill.
The first of what will be at least two COVID relief bills made its way through the General Assembly and over to governor’s desk this week. SB 36: 2020 COVID Relief Bill Modifications was compromise legislation between both chambers as well as Governor Cooper’s office. The bill extends the extra credit grant program established through the previous COVID relief package passed by the legislature. The program provides $335 checks to parents with children in school to help cover the cost of things like childcare or tutors while students remain out of the classroom. Many parents who are eligible for the checks through the original bill’s requirements had not filed their taxes when the bill was passed or, in some cases, were subject to a glitch in the tax software used to determine eligibility, meaning they never received their checks.
The majority of the bill focuses on extending deadlines for funds to be spent or reports to be submitted in light of the most recent federal legislation and guidance. In addition, SB 36 shifts around where some money is coming from for the GREAT grant program to ensure that all $39 million of it can be spent and sent out to applicants, who have already been selected to receive the awards. There was some concern that without this change, not all of the money would be able to be awarded in time to meet certain deadlines. Now all $39 million can be awarded without the worry of meeting a deadline. While SB 36 was meant to be purely a technical corrections bill, it does appropriate a pot of new money that top lawmakers felt was critical to get out right away, including funding to help schools reopen, distribute the vaccine throughout the state, and provide emergency rental and utility assistance programs.
Amendments were not accepted on this legislation, however, bill sponsors in both the House and Senate, Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) and Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), indicated that this is just the first COVID relief bill. A second relief bill is coming soon, which will include new policies and new appropriations, allocating the new monies provided to the state by the federal government since the last COVID bill was passed the General Assembly.
As lawmakers look ahead to putting together another COVID relief bill to appropriate both state funds and additional federal dollars, Governor Cooper provided an outline of how he would spend the money during a press conference Thursday. In addition to childcare, food banks, and food assistance programs, some of the Governor’s top budget priorities for the COVID funds include:
- $700 million of federal dollars to go towards testing, tracing, transmission prevention, and increased access to vaccines
- $546 million for emergency and utility rental assistance
- $37 million to provide additional support to small businesses, specifically for historically underutilized businesses and loan programs through the Golden L.E.A.F Foundation
- Eliminating ABC permit fees saving restaurants and bars about $25 million per year
- $2 billion to provide emergency assistance for public and private K-12 schools and institutions of higher education
- $468 million in total of state funds to provide one-time bonuses to educators – teachers and principals would receive a bonus of $2,500, school personnel would receive $1,5000, and community college and UNC System employees would receive $2,000
- $30 million to invest in internet access throughout the state, including 35,000 hot spots for education needs
- Increasing the state’s unemployment benefits to $500 per week with a maximum duration of 26 weeks
To read Governor Cooper’s entire supplemental budget recommendation proposal, click here.
The House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee held its first meeting of 2021 Wednesday. Presiding over the meeting was Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-Henderson), who has returned to the legislature after a few terms out of office. The committee had only one bill before it this week — the proposed committee substitute to HB 4: Extend ABC Permit Renewal Fee Deferral. The bill, which Rep. Moffitt presented, would address how the private bar industry has been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and, in his words, how bars have been negatively impacted by Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 141.
The language details plans to retroactively extend the deferment on ABC permit fees until the bar industry can fully reopen. The language passed in 2020 to help bars with ABC permit fees did not consider the potential for a modification for a partial reopening, as many bars have done in the last few months. The ABC system followed the letter of the law, Moffitt explained, and started cancelling bar permits. The second part of the bill would allow for those bars that were attempting to operate on a modified basis but were scrambling to pay permit fees to seek a refund of the fees that they already paid. Last, the bill claws back all actions taken by the ABC Commission with regards to moving active permittees into inactive status, and reinstates their permits.
The bill passed the committee easily on a voice vote and nearly unanimously on the House floor Thursday morning. Rep. Moffitt let the committee know that this would be a very active year for the committee, with the promise of a great deal of legislation to come. HB 4 will now make its way over to the Senate.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, February 8
12:00PM House: Session Convenes
4:00PM Senate: Session Convenes
Tuesday, February 9
10:00AM House: Health
3:00PM House: Energy and Public Utilities
Thursday, February 11
11:00AM House: Education – Community Colleges