Cooper signs $1B federal virus relief package

Posted September 2, 2020 6:24 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2020 5:33 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed legislation that doles out $1 billion in federal coronavirus pandemic relief money to the jobless, parents of public school students, poll workers, public health agencies and others.

The House voted 104-10 for the package on Thursday, following the Senate's 44-5 vote on Wednesday.

"This budget followed my recommendations on school enrollment funding and invested in important areas like high-speed internet access and disaster relief, but legislators should have done more to expand Medicaid, support small businesses, pay our educators, assist with rent and utilities relief and further help unemployed North Carolinians," Cooper said in a statement. "Obviously, I don’t agree with every provision, but the funding for pandemic support in this budget is critical and must move forward."

Some Democrats complained the package didn't go far enough.

"We're in a crisis – a crisis of health, a crisis of jobs, a crisis for small businesses, a crisis for our schools," House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said. "Today's bill helps a little, but in the end, I think we could have done a lot more."

"My major concern is our legislature is not saying that we prioritize people who are the most impacted, who can least afford it," said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham. "We're just not doing enough for those who we can be helping."

Still, most Democrats still joined all Republicans to vote in favor of the broad relief package before the legislature wrapped up its two-day session and adjourned for the year.

The GOP package includes money for coronavirus testing, tracing and personal protective equipment, as well as funds to raise weekly unemployment benefits by $50 and give Election Day poll workers another $100. K-12 public schools also wouldn't be penalized financially if enrollment falls while they are holding classes remotely. There's also money to address recent natural disasters and to help businesses that have retained employees during the pandemic.

“This bill is about equipping the people of the state of North Carolina with tools to help weather the storm of school closures and economic loss,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said at a news conference.

But the linchpin of the package is one-time, $335 stimulus-style payments to families of nearly 2 million students in the state. Most who filed tax returns for 2019 would get the money automatically by mid-December, although people who didn't make enough to file a return could apply until Oct. 15 for the payment.

The money, Berger said, could be used for whatever a parent needs, such as a child's electronic device or tutor.

“Parents face many challenges this year that they’ve never had to deal with before," House Speaker Tim Moore said, adding that getting them a “little extra help to take care of those children, I think, is key.”

The proposal also expands the Opportunity Scholarships voucher program to more families, lowering the income threshold to qualify and lifting a cap on the number vouchers for kindergarten and first-grade students.

Berger, R-Rockingham, said some students just cannot learn in front of a screen, and their parents deserve the option of sending them to a private school that’s holding in-person classes.

"School choice should not be a privilege available only to those who can afford it. Parental school choice is a right," he said.

Most Democrats and teachers groups are against expanding vouchers, saying they take money away from public schools for private profit. Cooper has suggested ending the program, not expanding it.

Last week Cooper pitched his own $978 million package to spend the federal pandemic relief funds, and the GOP package contained some items that he requested. But other items were ignored, and GOP legislators refused to consider the governor's additional request to spend $559 million in state tax dollars in part for teacher bonuses, and at-risk students. Cooper also wanted Republicans to finally expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of additional uninsured people.

A Medicaid expansion amendment by Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County was ruled out of order. Republicans also used parliamentary maneuvers to halt several other Democratic amendments.

“This is not a serious relief package,” said Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, calling it "a response to the pandemic that’s more political than anything else.”

But Cooper hasn’t said much about the Republican proposal, and the support from Senate Democrats suggest vetoing it would be risky entering a fall election campaign in which both he and all 170 legislators are on the ballot. Cooper's office didn't respond to an email late Wednesday about the package.

Republicans said the state’s financial situation is too precarious under COVID-19 to spend more tax dollars and blamed Cooper for vetoing permanent teacher pay raises last year. Teachers already are receiving experienced-based raises and $350 bonuses this year.

In July, lawmakers were hopeful that on their return, Congress would have provided more relief funds, creating more certainty about the state's economic picture. That hasn't happened, and state economists have yet to agree on whether to adjust the revenue forecast for this fiscal year.

Compared to the July session, a larger percentage of legislators — particularly Republicans — wore face masks within the Legislative Building. Many GOP lawmakers had been skeptical of face coverings in the spring. The building remained open to the public, and visitors and staff got temperature readings before entering as a precaution.

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