Pardon Our Dust
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The NC General Assembly was cut short this week by the threat of severe weather, leading many members to return to their districts to take care of their homes and neighbors. Legislators did not let the inclement weather stop them from getting the people’s business completed during the few days they were in Raleigh. This week the Senate completed their election of seven members to sit on the UNC Board of Governors. Chairman Randy Ramsey, James Arthur Pope and Jimmy Clark were reelected to the BOG, and newcomers Lee Roberts, Sonja Nichols and Kirk Bradley were also elected. The Senate also filled the seat vacated by Darrell Allison, who was appointed Chancellor of Fayetteville State University, with a familiar face, former NC Senator Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County.
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, and hospitalizations are at an all-time low in 2021, with 50 fewer people hospitalized today than one week ago.
As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 2,004 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 995 individuals hospitalized, and sadly, 11,783 confirmed deaths. There have been 3,289,422 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.
The NC Commerce Department released new workforce numbers Monday showing a slight decline in the state’s overall unemployment rate. The figures show that in January, 11,284 fewer North Carolinians were unemployed than in December, leading to an unemployment rate of 5.9%. While this number is significantly lower than the peak 13.5% unemployment rate the state experienced last April and May, it is still nearly 2.5% higher than it was one year ago. Throughout the pandemic, North Carolina’s unemployment rate has remained slightly lower than the national average.
Nonetheless, state leaders are grappling to find a solution to ensure individuals have an incentive to go back to work while also promoting public health and safety. On March 1, 2021, Governor Roy Cooper (D) issued Executive Order 200 which reinstated the work search requirement for unemployment claimants. Under the order, which took effect March 14, 2021, claimants must make contact with at least three potential employers each week and keep a record of their work search. Claimants must also register with NCWorks, the state’s information technology portal for employment and training services.
The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance met Wednesday and invited Assistant Secretary of the Division of Employment Security Pryor Gibson and his team to review ramifications of the Governor’s executive order. Gibson said that since the work search requirements went into effect on March 14th, 16,000 individuals were immediately subject to the requirement, and that he expects 120,000 claimants to be subject to the requirements during the next several weeks. Some legislators were still concerned about the work search requirements being adhered to by most claimants. During the meeting, Senator Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson), who also co-chairs the committee, said he has heard from employers that people are showing up saying, “I don’t want a job, I just want you to say that I applied for one.” Several other legislators echoed Edwards’ sentiment, saying they had heard similar reports.
Gibson assured legislators that while it is certainly not their policy to allow people to remain on unemployment when they can and should be working, his division is doing everything possible to combat fraud and waste. The division has used data analytics and software to identify clusters of information to further investigate.
State Auditor Beth Wood has never been one to mince words, and her presentation Wednesday to the Senate Transportation Committee was no exception. Last year, Wood’s office released an audit that showed that the Department of Transportation (DOT) overspent their 2019 budget by $724 million taxpayer dollars because of “poor oversight of their budget, spending and cash flow.” In response, the legislature passed H77: DOT 2020-2021 FY Budget/Governance to restructure the Board of Transportation, modify the cash balance requirement and mandate monthly financial reports. In turn, Wood’s office then audited the internal audits conducted within DOT, and her report concluded that DOT did not follow standard practices for the audit which led to potential inaccuracies.
In her presentation Wednesday, Wood identified seven concerning findings, mostly regarding a lack of uniform processes and misunderstanding of controls and protocols, which she said was a direct result of a lack of skill and competency within DOT’s internal audit shop. However, her criticisms were not just directed towards DOT. Wood said that out of the forty state agencies with internal audit shops, only two have directors, and barely any of them have the skills to prepare a report with calculated risks and plans. This led to a discussion by Senators on how the overall system of internal auditing can be improved.
Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett) asked Wood if she and her office could train internal auditors in the state agencies, but Wood said that would remove the independence and objectiveness that comes with being the external auditor for the state. Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham) asked if the measures implemented in H77 had been followed and if they were causing efficient change. Wood said those changes had not yet come to fruition, but that they were auditing those protocols and would have a report out soon.
In response to a question asked by Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) about the root of the problem being with resources or the quality of internal auditors, Wood said it was both. “You can’t legislate sensible thinking,” Wood said, “the burden shouldn’t be on the legislature.”
H123 – Misdemeanors/Mandate First Appearances: Currently, in North Carolina, only an individual charged with a felony has a right to a first appearance before a district court judge within 96 hours. H123 would require a first appearance before a district court judge for those charged with misdemeanors who are not released on bail. The bill would also reduce the amount of time a court has to bring the individual before a judge from 96 hours to 72 hours after an individual is taken into custody. The bill passed the House Judiciary 3 committee this week, and is on its way to the Rules committee.
H205 – Abuse & Neglect Resources in Public Schools: The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in child abuse and neglect. H205 would require the NC Board of Education to adopt a policy to provide students with age-appropriate information on reporting abuse and neglect, and information on how to contact their local social services department without going through the police. Rep. Dudley Greene (R-McDowell), who was previously Sheriff of McDowell County, said during committee that this bill was important because he personally saw many instances of child abuse that never would have been reported if it was not for school intervention. The bill passed the House Committee on Families, Children and Aging Policy and is on its way to the House Education K-12 Committee.
H219 – Amend Water/Sewer Rate Adjustment Mechanisms: Private water and sewer utilities want the ability to secure multi-year rate hike approvals from the Industrial Commission without going before the Commission each year. H219 gives them that authority, but the rate increase would be capped at 5% per year. The bill sponsor, Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), said this was important because the utilities face aging infrastructure and environmental challenges, and these companies must make investment in their systems. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said she was not opposing this bill because of the protections built in, but states that she still wants to hear more from consumer advocacy groups. H219 passed the House Energy and Public Utilities Committee and is on its way to the House Rules Committee.
S103 – Reduce Regulation to Help Children with Autism: North Carolina is currently the only state which prohibits behavior analysts – which are health care providers who offer therapy to patients with autism – from practicing independently. S103 would provide a path for behavior analysts to obtain licensure and practice on their own. If it becomes law, this bill would mean that parents of children with autism, especially those in rural areas, would no longer have to drive hours to find a behavior analyst working under the supervision of a psychiatrist. This bill passed out of the Senate this week and now goes to the House for consideration.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, March 8
4:00PM House: Session Convenes
7:00PM Senate: Session Convenes
Tuesday, March 9
8:30AM House: Appropriations, Justice and Public Safety (Joint)
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety
8:30AM House: Appropriations, Health and Human Services (Joint)
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Health and Human Services
8:30AM House: UNC BOG Nominations
1:00PM House: Local Government
1:00PM House: Education – K-12
1:00PM Senate: Redistricting and Elections
2:00PM House: Marine Resources and Aqua Culture
2:00PM House: Commerce
2:00PM House: Pensions and Retirement
3:00PM House: Energy and Public Utilities
Wednesday, March 10
8:45AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources