North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

February 12, 2021

Pardon Our Dust

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After lawmakers quickly moved the first coronavirus relief bill through both chambers of the General Assembly last week, Governor Roy Cooper (D) signed SB 36: 2020 COVID Relief Bill Modifications Wednesday, officially making the bill law. The compromise legislation between state lawmakers and the Governor’s administration extends the extra credit grant program, providing $335 checks to parents with a child in school as well as new money to help with vaccine distribution, school reopenings, and emergency rental and utility assistance programs. The rest of the bill includes technical changes like extending deadlines for funds to be spent or reports to submitted. This is just the first of what lawmakers expect to many COVID relief bills to make it to the Governor’s desk.

As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 810,466 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 9,447,619 completed tests, 10,294 deaths, and 2,185 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.

Vaccine Eligibility

North Carolina has continued to see an increase in the number of vaccines distributed throughout the state as well as in the amount of providers able to administer the shots. So much so that soon more North Carolinians will be eligible to get the vaccine. Beginning February 24, the first set of Group 3 essential workers will become eligible to receive the vaccine, including teachers, principals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, childcare providers, and other school personnel. Then, beginning March 10, everyone else who falls into the Group 3 category of frontline essential workers, such as grocery store and restaurant workers, will become eligible.

The announcement to prioritize teachers, childcare providers, and school personnel as the state moves into Group 3 vaccinations comes as the General Assembly and the Governor’s administration push for schools to reopen for in-person instruction. While studies have found that virus transmission in schools is extremely low so long as the proper safety measures are in place, teachers and other school personnel have voiced concern over being required to return to in-person instruction without first being vaccinated.

This first set of Group 3 recipients is estimated to include around 240,000 people. With North Carolina receiving just 150,000 doses of the vaccine each week, supply will still be extremely limited. Governor Cooper and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Mandy Cohen hope that this gradual phasing into Group 3 eligibility will help providers ease into the process of administering more doses of the vaccine every day. During Wednesday’s press conference when the announcement was made, Sec. Cohen noted that while an individual may become eligible on a given date, that does not necessarily mean that is when they will receive their first shot. Providers may already have appointments booked up by those in Group 1 and Group 2, such as healthcare workers and individuals aged 65 or older. Even as more and more individuals in Group 3 become eligible to receive the vaccine, people in Groups 1 and 2 can still get their first shot if they have not already.

So far, North Carolina has administered 1,554,378 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. For more information on the vaccine or vaccination groups, click here.

Reopening Schools

While few school districts continue to operate under Plan C (remote instruction only), and public school personnel is next on the list to receive the vaccine, North Carolina lawmakers continued their push for a mandatory return to some form of in-person instruction for all public school students. After receiving its final vote in the Senate Tuesday, SB 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families made its way through two House committees and a floor vote by Thursday afternoon.

The bill requires all local education agencies (LEAs) to reopen for some form of in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. Schools would be required to offer Plan A (complete in-person instruction with minimal social distancing) to all special education students with an IEP or 504 plan. Schools would be required to offer either Plan A or Plan B (a hybrid of both in-person and remote instruction with moderate social distancing) to all other students grades K-12. A virtual learning option would still be offered for those that would prefer to stay with remote learning. All schools would be required to follow the health and safety guidance outlined in the DHHS guidance document, StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

A series of amendments were presented on the House floor Thursday afternoon, but failed across the board as bill sponsor Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) argued that schools needed to reopen as soon as possible, and the guidance referenced in the bill provided a safe outline for schools to do so. There was one amendment made to the bill in the House Rules committee, clarified through another amendment on the House floor, after hearing concerns from some House lawmakers and local superintendents. In an attempt to clarify the bill and address those concerns, the House amended the bill by adding language that expressly states local boards of education must provide reasonable work accommodations for teachers and/or caregivers to minors with underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including a remote work option. The bill passed the House with a 74-44 vote.

When the bill was sent back over to the Senate, bill sponsor Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) told members that the added language was confusing and asked them not to concur with the House’s version of the bill. Now, the fate of SB 37 remains up in the air as conference committee members of both chambers try to reach a consensus on the bill language. Should members reach an agreement, the House and Senate plan to vote on the conference report Monday evening.

Secretary Confirmation

This week, the Senate unanimously approved SR 55: Confirm Reid Wilson/Sec. N & CR., officially confirming him as the Secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR). Governor Cooper announced Reid Wilson’s appointment to DNCR Secretary at the end of last year after Wilson served for four years as Chief Deputy of the department.

Now-Secretary Wilson began his career as the national political director of the Sierra Club before serving eight years in the Clinton administration at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After his work in the former president’s administration, Wilson remained in DC and began his role as senior vice president with M & R Strategic Services, a public affairs consulting group. Wilson came to North Carolina in the early 2000s to work as the executive director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.

Wilson was vetted this week by the Senate Agriculture, Energy, and Environment Committee as well as the Senate Select Committee on Nominations. While speaking with lawmakers, Wilson indicated that some of his top priorities in this new role will include expanding grade school education efforts, increasing the department’s digital outreach, emphasizing diversity through hiring and historical programs, and assisting in the work to expand internet access. Wilson also plans to make economic development a priority through the DNCR’s management of the historic preservation tax credit program and the promotion of tourism through the state. Wilson said he would remain committed to protecting North Carolina’s natural, native spaces and supporting a variety of arts programs.

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, February 15

4:00PM Senate: Session Convenes

5:00PM Senate: Rules and Operations of the Senate

7:00PM House: Session Convenes

Tuesday, February 16

8:30AM House: Finance

1:00PM House: Local Government

1:00PM House: Education – K-12

2:00PM House: Commerce

3:00PM House: Judiciary 4

3:00PM House: Energy and Public Utilities

Wednesday, February 17 

9:00AM Senate: Agriculture, Energy, and Environment