Pardon Our Dust
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The NC General Assembly has been in full swing this week, working to find solutions to some of the state’s most pressing problems, like school reopening and extending unemployment benefits in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The legislature also has spent the week discussing bills that do not necessarily make the headlines but are very important for those that are affected. One bill, House Bill 53: Education Changes for Military-Connected Students, will make changes to ease the burden of active duty parents worrying about their child’s education. Another bill, House Bill 136: Encourage Healthy NC Food in Schools, will help North Carolina farmers by putting muscadine grape juice in public school cafeterias. Most of these bills will pass overwhelmingly with little to no opposition, but they show how important state government can be.
Fortunately, the state is continuing on a positive trajectory with combating the coronavirus. The seven-day rolling average of positive cases has continued to drop every week since February 3, and hospitalizations are at an all-time low in 2021, with 142 fewer people hospitalized today than just last Friday.
As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 2,061 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 1,039 individuals hospitalized, and sadly, 11,622 confirmed deaths. There have been 2,848,092 doses of the vaccine distributed in NC.
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.
For weeks, legislative leaders and Governor Roy Cooper (D) have struggled to find common ground on how public schools should reopen as cases of the coronavirus have continued to decline. The legislature attempted to pass a bill to require all local educational agencies (LEAs) to reopen schools to either full or partial capacity, but the Governor vetoed it. The Senate unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the veto, but speculation continued about if they would try again using a procedural move. Finally this week, a compromise was reached.
Wednesday morning, Republican legislative leaders Senator Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) met Governor Cooper in Centennial Plaza, precisely at the midway point between the legislative complex and the Governor’s office, for a news conference to announce their compromise. Their deal, which would be in the form of a gutted then revised bill, would require LEAs to provide full-time, daily in-person instruction to elementary school students in grades K-5, and the option to provide in-person instruction for middle and high school students. The new bill only applies to public school districts, not charter schools or private schools. The deal also provides Governor Cooper with the power to put restrictions on, or close completely, a school district in response to a coronavirus outbreak.
Senate Bill 220, aptly renamed “The Reopen Our Schools Act of 2021,” passed both chambers unanimously and was signed into law by the Governor on Thursday. Not everyone was pleased with the new legislation, though. The NC Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly issued a statement saying the agreement would “needlessly encourage school boards to push students, educators and staff into school buildings that do not comply with CDC guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians.” Still, educators who now serve in the General Assembly were sure to recognize fellow teachers for their commitment to safety. Rep. Amber Baker (D-Forsyth) spoke on the House floor, saying, “Teachers have had to make many new accommodations, but as educators always do, we rise above the level of expectation…so as you vote for this bill today, remember to thank an educator.”
With passage of the bill, public schools across North Carolina will begin welcoming students back to their buildings within 21 days. Kids with backpacks and yellow school buses on our thoroughfares will be a small but optimistic sign of a return to normalcy. Speaking of school buses, another bill, House Bill 193: 2020-2021 School Transportation Flexibility, introduced by Rep. Ray Pickett (R-Watauga), will provide protocols for safely getting students back on school buses in accordance with DHHS requirements. That bill also passed the House unanimously and is on its way to the Senate.
If there is one government policy that average North Carolinians went from knowing nothing about to knowing almost everything about, it is unemployment. In December, the number of North Carolinians who filed unemployment claims surpassed 2.9 million. At one point during the pandemic, the Department of Commerce, which houses the Division of Employment Security, was experiencing a 3000% increase in weekly cases filed from the same point a year prior. The situation was dire, but thanks to bipartisan agreement across the legislature and state agencies, the system was well-funded and out-of-work people were taken care of. As a result, the state unemployment system has constantly improved and become more efficient during the pandemic.
With this week’s federal coronavirus stimulus package being passed and signed into law, unemployment will once again evolve. The final package extends the $300 federal jobless supplement until September 6, 2021. The bill also exempts up to $10,200 in last year’s unemployment payments for an individual who made less than $150,000 during the entire year. Additionally, the package extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which benefited gig workers and self-employed workers, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program that extended the time a person can collect unemployment benefits.
This week, the NC General Assembly also made changes to the state’s unemployment system in light of a hopeful better economic forecast in the months to come. Senate Bill 114: DES Covid Modifications, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson), would extend COVID-related benefits though the end of 2021, and allow people to stack “back-to-back” benefit periods for COVID unemployment and regular unemployment. The bill also reinstates a work search requirement in order to receive benefits, and postpones a planned unemployment tax hike for businesses. The bill passed the Senate with a unanimous vote, and is on its way to the House of Representatives.
Convention of States
Every week, legislators in the General Assembly receive emails from constituents urging them to support a Convention of States under Article V of the United States Constitution. They are standard template emails which urge the legislator to support efforts to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its power, and impose term limits on members of Congress. Usually these automated emails are ignored, but this week, the conversation around calling a Convention of States was re-ignited by Speaker Tim Moore’s proposed House Joint Resolution 172: Term Limits for Congress. If passed, North Carolina would become the sixteenth state to pass a resolution requesting a constitutional convention. Thirty-four states are required to call a formal convention. Speaker Moore’s resolution specifically requests a convention to pass only one amendment, which would mandate term limits for members of the United States Congress, though it does not direct how many terms should be the limit.
The resolution passed the House Judiciary 1 and Rules committees this week with fairly little debate. Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake) asked a question which exposed the differences of opinion on this issue. “If a convention is held,” Jones asked, “what is to stop the members from venturing into other subjects?” Wynne Coleman, Chair of the organization No Convention of States, said during public comment, “The founders knew that an Article V convention is not a legislative assembly, it’s a government-making assembly.” Other legislators, including Republicans and Democrats, seem to agree with Coleman’s assessment. House Joint Resolution 146: Rescind Calls for Constitutional Convention, which was sponsored by five House Republican members in late February, would explicitly rescind any calls for a resolution by the NC General Assembly for a Convention of States. House Joint Resolution 233: Application for a Convention of the States, which was sponsored by twenty-three House Republicans, called for a Convention of States on multiple grounds, including term limits and limiting the power of the federal government.
It is unclear what will be the fate of Speaker Moore’s term limits resolution. Wednesday, Moore withdrew it from the House floor calendar and redirected it to the Rules Committee, a sign that the resolution may not have had enough support at the time. An Article V convention process has never been used to amend the US Constitution.
Last month, Rep. Wayne Sasser (R-Stanly) introduced House Bill 93: Require Naloxone Scripts with Opioid Scripts, which would require physicians in North Carolina to prescribe the anti-overdose medication Naloxone when prescribing powerful opioid medications. This week, H93 passed out of the House Insurance Committee in a vote that sharply divided the committee members. Rep. Kristin Baker (R-Cabarrus), who is a doctor, disagreed with the bill, stating that doctors should have the freedom to decide whether their patients need a Naloxone prescription. Harry Kaplan, a partner at McGuireWoods Consulting and lobbyist for the NC Association of Health Plans, spoke to the committee in opposition to the bill, noting that doctors could face disciplinary action if they do not adhere to the mandate in the bill. The bill now goes to the House Health Committee.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, March 8
4:00PM Senate: Session Convenes
4:00PM House: Session Convenes
5:30PM Senate: Rules
Tuesday, March 9
8:30AM House: Appropriations, General Government (Joint)
8:30AM House: Appropriations, Justice and Public Safety (Joint)
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on General Government and Information Technology
8:30AM House: Appropriations, Health and Human Services (Joint)
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Health and Human Services
10:00AM House: Health
1:00PM House: Local Government
1:00PM House: Education – K-12
2:00PM House: Homeland Security, Military and Veterans
3:00PM House: Energy and Public Utilities
3:00PM House: Judiciary 1
3:00PM House: Families, Children and Aging Policy
Wednesday, March 10
11:00AM House: State Personnel
11:00AM House: Judiciary 3