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NC Senate OKs $1.4B coronavirus relief package

Posted April 29, 2020 2:25 p.m. EDT
Updated April 29, 2020 8:27 p.m. EDT

— The state Senate gave unanimous approval Wednesday night to a measure directing some $1.4 billion in federal aid to North Carolina schools, businesses and others hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

"What we have put together here is something that represents the work of all members of the North Carolina Senate," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said.

"This truly does have all the aspects of a consensus bill that you’re ever going to see," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said.

The 48-0 vote sends Senate Bill 704 to the House, which is expected to vote Thursday on its own package of relief proposals.

The two chambers are still far apart on how much federal relief money to spend in their first coronavirus response bills. But the differences in the measures go well beyond dollar figures.

The House bill would spend nearly $1.7 billion from CARES Act funding, which allocated about $3.5 billion to North Carolina.

Senate leaders say their proposal spends $2.4 billion in federal funds, but more than $1 billion of that comes from earlier federal relief bills, some of which went directly to the Governor's Office or to cities, counties and school districts, bypassing the legislative appropriations process.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said the Senate negotiated with Democrats in the chamber and Gov. Roy Cooper's administration, not with the House, on its final plan.

"The goal is the same," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "That is to come up with a bill that will enjoy broad, bipartisan consensus to do what we can to address some of the needs around here."

The $300 million is certainly no small gap. But policy differences in the two chambers' proposals are also notable.

For example, the Senate proposal would increase the state's unemployment benefit in August from a maximum of $350 to a maximum of $400. Senate leaders say that's designed to kick in when the addition federal relief benefits expire.

In contrast, the House proposal would codify some of the unemployment changes enacted by executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper, like skipping the required waiting week. But it would not make those changes permanent.

Another difference is in spending on virus testing and research.

While House leaders are proposing to spend up to $135 million on additional active testing and research across the state's universities, the Senate is spending $20 million on an antibody testing project it announced earlier this month in conjunction with Wake Forest University. An additional $15 million each would go to Duke University and to the NC Policy Collaboratory, a program created by Senate leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The two chambers also differ on whether to expand Medicaid to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment for the uninsured.

There are also sizable differences in funding for particular areas.

The Senate is proposing $125 million for small-business loans and grants through Rocky Mount-based economic development foundation Golden LEAF, well above the House's $75 million.

The Senate would also set aside $300 million for the state Department of Transportation's budget shortfall if the federal government allows the CARES Act funds to be used in that way. House Transportation Chairman Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said a similar provision, discussed in committee, didn't make it into the final House bill.

Education and health funding also differs widely between the two proposals:

  • The Senate is proposing $56 million for school nutrition programs, compared to $80 million in the House bill.
  • The House bill includes $75 million in grants for rural hospitals. The Senate bill doesn't include funding for them.
  • The House is proposing $50 million for personal protective equipment.

Senate budget leader Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said all sides are trying to get help approved quickly.

"We know many all around our state are hurting right now, and I know we’re going to do our best to do what we can for them," Jackson said. "I know we all share the same goal to provide that help and relief to our constituents."

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