@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Legislature reaches deal on $1.6 billion pandemic relief package

Posted May 2, 2020 10:12 a.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2020 11:48 a.m. EDT

— The North Carolina General Assembly has approved a pandemic relief package of nearly $1.6 billion.

Lawmakers gave final approval to two bills in a rare Saturday session, wrapping up the legislature's first action on COVID-19 response. The votes in both the House and the Senate Saturday were unanimous, which is unusual for large legislation in a General Assembly so often divided by party.

Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to sign the bills into law quickly, and they would take effect immediately.

Update: The governor signed these measures into law late Monday morning during a press conference with legislative leaders.

Among other things, they extend driver's license and tag expiration deadlines, waive interest payments on state income and business taxes that were normally due in April and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public schools, vaccine and treatment research, coronavirus testing and contact tracing and a bridge loan program for small businesses.

In addition to the $1.57 billion in federal CARES Act funding under the General Assembly's direction, the package includes another $1 billion to account for additional federal aid that has come directly to the executive branch and local agencies. That stream of money includes significant funding for public schools, higher education and child care grants.

Another session is expected later this month as the body decides how to allocate more of the $3.5 billion in federal funding kicked down to the state as part of Congress' stimulus bills. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he hopes most of the $2 billion or so left can be used to prop up the state budget, which will take a major revenue hit from reduced sales and other tax collections.

That depends on a change in federal rules for the funding, though, which is also an issue for some funding in the bills passed Saturday. That includes $300 million for the state Department of Transportation to keep highway projects going. There are also questions about funding intended to help local governments facing revenue losses.

A number of more controversial issues were jettisoned from the final bill in the name of consensus.

Language that would have allowed restaurants to sell liquor drinks with to-go orders, much as beer and wine sales are allowed now, was removed. This was part of the House's plan, but it didn't fly in the Senate. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a key budget writer, said he'll press for the measure again during the next session.

The Senate also declined a partial Medicaid expansion proposed by the House to cover COVID-19 treatment costs for people under a certain income threshold, but there is increased funding in the bill for Medicaid in general, and there's direct funding to hospitals that Senate leadership has said should cover treatment costs.

A House proposal to require insurance companies to pay for telehealth doctor's visits the same as face-to-face visits was also dropped from the final bill. A Senate proposal to increase the state's weekly maximum on unemployment benefits was also cut, though the federal $600-a-week increase and extension on the duration of benefits remains in place.

Employers will get a break this year, though, on the unemployment insurance tax they normally pay to support the system.

Proposals that were cut could come back in individual bills when lawmakers gather again. A schedule hasn't been set.

Lawmakers also declined a series of election policy changes and funding requests from the State Board of Elections, saying they'll deal with that later.

A pair of liability immunity provisions survived negotiations. One covers health care workers, protecting them from civil and criminal liability as they provide COVID-19 treatment. Another protects businesses. It was pitched as a protection for businesses that have switched to making masks and other personal protective equipment, but it's fairly broad, covering any essential business whose employees or customers contract COVID-19.

Neither liability measure would protect people or businesses if their misconduct is reckless, intentional or grossly negligent, the policy bill states, and Senate bill writers have said the essential business language would not change worker compensation rules.

There are a pair of proposals in the House, not yet acted on, meant to extend workers compensation protections during the pandemic, but it's not clear yet what support that legislation has.

The final bills being approved Saturday authorize dentists to give COVID-19 tests and pharmacists to administer a vaccine when one is developed.

The bills also lay out a detailed study by the North Carolina Area Health Education Center on the state's health care infrastructure relevant to pandemics, including whether the state has enough health care workers to handle surges and the impact on hospitals – particularly rural ones – of postponing elective procedures, as hospitals have for much of this crisis.

The bills also delay the state Division of Motor Vehicle's headquarters move from Raleigh to Rocky Mount. What once was an Oct. 1 deadline to complete the move essentially becomes a start date for the move.

There are lots of education policy tweaks, including waivers for end-of-year testing now that schools are meeting remotely for the rest of this school year. Reading tests given at the end of third grade will move to the start of fourth grade. School report cards and the grades given to each school based on various metrics are suspended for this year.

School systems are supposed to submit remote learning plans for the next school year by July 20, and the first day of school will be Aug. 17. The school year will be 190 days, with at least five days of remote learning under the bill.

A number of teacher and school administrator licensing requirements are waived, and the bill tweaks various notarizing and other process issues to cut down on face-to-face contact in routine government operations. Among other things, registers of deeds will be able to issue marriage licenses via remote audio-video communication instead of requiring the couple to come in.

The state's plan is split into two bills: Senate Bill 704, which is 70 pages of policy changes related to the crisis, and House Bill 1043, which lays out the spending.

Bill summaries from legislative staff are also available for the policy bill and for the money bill.

Below is a breakdown of the spending bill.

COVID-19 research

  • $15 million to the Duke University Human Vaccine Institute to develop a vaccine
  • $29 million flowing through the NC Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for vaccine and treatment research, as well as community testing and other research
  • $15 million to the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, also for research
  • $6 million to the Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine for a rural-focused testing and treatment initiative
  • $20 million to Wake Forest University Health Services to expand the antibody study Senate lawmakers already spent $100,000 on

COVID-19 supplies and tracing

  • $50 million to purchase supplies, including PPE, divided up between hospitals (50 percent), senior living facilities (15 percent), doctor's offices (10 percent) and the state Department of Public Safety (25 percent) for the State Highway Patrol, the North Carolina National Guard and others as it sees fit. Rep. Sydney Batch, D-Wake, expressed some concern during floor debate that the limits would make it difficult to get enough supplies to local first responders. The policy bill lays out plans to create a long-term state stockpile of PPE.
  • $25 million to expand testing and contact tracing through the Department of Health and Human Services. This money won't be released until DHHS releases statistics the legislature wants to see, including data on underlying health conditions in people who die from COVID-19 and on people with the virus who are hospitalized, then released.

State, local government costs

  • $70 million for state government operations, including overtime costs and supply needs at prisons, as well as for IT costs for remote needs and for temporary staff to help the state unemployment office
  • $300 million for the DOT, but only once the federal government revises its rules to allow it
  • $20 million for state agencies, like the North Carolina Zoo, that have lost receipts due to virus-related closures. Again, the federal government must update its rules first to allow that use.
  • $150 million to replace lost revenue for local governments that have not already received direct funding from the federal government. This, too, relies on a change in federal policy.

School funding

  • $75 million for school breakfast and lunch programs
  • $1 million to improve internet connectivity for students by installing Wi-Fi routers in school buses. The money can be used to buy devices, but not for subscription costs.
  • $30 million to be distributed to local school systems to buy computers and other electronic devices for students
  • $5 million to purchase computers and other devices for school personnel
  • $4.5 million for cybersecurity at schools
  • $10 million for mental health and other services for students
  • $70 million for supplemental summer learning programs, particularly reading and math programs for students from kindergarten through the fourth grade
  • $3 million for "non-digital remote instruction" for students with limited internet access
  • $15 million for grants to cover "extraordinary costs" in schools around the state
  • $5 million targeting at-risk students and including "rigorous, quantitative performance measures" and "an evidence-based model with a proven track record of success"

Universities and colleges

  • $25 million for community colleges
  • $44 million for the state university system to move courses online
  • $20 million in funding for private colleges

Social services, health programs

  • $20 million to DHHS to support local health departments, increase nursing capacity and the number of community health workers and focus on infection control in nursing homes
  • $6 million for food banks
  • $25 million for adult, family and group homes in the state-county special assistance program
  • $50 million for health programs in rural and underserved communities, including minority communities
  • $5 million for the North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics to distribute to its members
  • $1.5 million to NC MedAssist, a program that helps offset prescription costs for poor people
  • $5 million to the North Carolina Community Health Centers Association to cover treatment costs for its members
  • $20 million for various needs at DHHS, including the purchase and distribution of opioid overdose reversal drugs and $12.6 million earmarked for LME/MCOs that work with disabled people
  • $19 million through DHHS to help food banks, adult and child protective services, homeless and domestic violence shelters and other programs
  • $1.8 million to the Old North State Medical Society to focus on African-American communities
  • $2.24 million to provide a monthly supplement increase of $100 for each child living in foster care
  • $9 million for rural broadband programs

Hospital funding

  • $65 million earmarked specifically for grants to rural hospitals and those in poorer counties around the state. Among other things, this money can be used to cover lost revenues from foregone elective procedures.
  • $15 million for teaching hospitals in the state: Wake Forest Baptist, Duke, UNC, Vidant Medical and Central Harnett
  • $15 million for a general hospital relief fund

Agriculture

  • $15 million to kill and dispose of animals, if needed, due to food supply chain problems

Business

  • $5 million to stimulate tourism, including for a program to "educate people on ways to travel in a safe and socially distant way"
  • $125 million for a small-business loan program through Golden LEAF, providing up to $50,000 per business. This program quickly doled out $15 million when it was created.

Correction: Due to a typo, Duke University vaccine funding was incorrectly listed at $150 million. It is $15 million.