RALEIGH — The North Carolina legislature came back Tuesday for its 2020 session with a tall order: decide how to handle $3.5 billion in new federal money for COVID-19 relief.
On Saturday, the House and Senate passed their plan unanimously, sending it to the governor.
Leaders from both chambers reached a deal late Friday night on a $1.57 billion spending plan, Senate leader Phil Berger’s spokesperson, Lauren Horsch, told The News & Observer on Saturday.
The plan includes millions in funding for education, health care, small business loans, food banks, medical research, testing and $50 million for personal protective equipment.
Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican, called it a “really good compromise.” He said lawmakers would work on a second phase of how to spend the federal money when they return to session later this month.
Not all House members were in the chamber. Several voted by proxy, with party leaders announcing their votes.
While the House didn’t get the temporary Medicaid expansion for coronavirus patients it wanted, the chambers agreed to increased funding in rural health and small business loans.
They did not increase the maximum amount of unemployment weekly benefits to $400, as the Senate had wanted.
Also, a House plan to allow restaurants and bars to serve mixed drinks as take-out or delivery orders was nixed in the final bill, according to Berger’s office.
Lawmakers also had disagreed over what to do with the state’s current mandate for schools to reduce class size in kindergarten through third grade. Schools must continue to change staffing and buildings to reduce class sizes. The House wanted to waive that requirement for a year. In the end, they dropped that delay, but Rep. David Lewis said lawmakers can take up the issue when they return.
The same goes for a provision dealing with the salaries of school principals, Lewis said.
“This is a good bill. It provides common sense, tangible, much needed and urgent relief,” said Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.
Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, tweeted a video of himself saying the House and Senate “came together and compromised to produce a joint bill that makes a good first step.” Jackson is a Mecklenburg County Democrat.
The House has spent a month in public COVID-19 committee meetings drafting smaller bills that were rolled into one comprehensive bill.
The Senate passed its first, $1.36 billion version of the bill on Wednesday night, and the House passed its first, $1.7 billion version Thursday. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper laid out his own plan last week to spend $1.4 billion of the federal money.
No extra benefits for the unemployedThe North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses around the state, worked closely with lawmakers on several provisions that made it into the final version of the bill, including $125 million in funding for small business loans through the Golden LEAF Foundation.
The nonprofit group launched an initial round of small business loans in March and almost immediately ran out of money due to the high demand. Ray Starling, the chamber’s general counsel, said this extra $125 million will supplement other loans and grants coming in from the federal government.
“That’s going to be very helpful for small businesses,” he said.
The chamber opposed the proposal to expand the state’s maximum unemployment benefits by $50 a week, Starling said.
Starling said the way that proposal had been written, it wasn’t clear if the extra money would go to everyone receiving unemployment, or only people receiving the maximum amount. And without a financial estimate of how much it would cost, he said, many businesses were wary of potentially having to pay more into the unemployment system in the future.
Cooper issued an executive order in March that businesses wouldn’t have to pay into the unemployment system during coronavirus, but usually they have to supplement the state funding.
North Carolina has among the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation. Starling said the chamber wouldn’t necessarily oppose efforts to expand those benefits in the future. He said it just couldn’t support anything now, with details lacking about the cost of the program, and “about where the economy is going to be later this year and how many people are still going to be on unemployment.”
Deadline to spend rest of the stimulus money
Lambeth said the compromise includes tens of millions of dollars in various forms to help hospitals, particularly rural hospitals and teaching hospitals attached to universities.
Lambeth said he would’ve liked to see more money for hospitals but noted that the legislature will still have around $2 billion from the federal government that will have to be spent by December.
“That’s a nice problem to have,” he said.
House Speaker Tim Moore said that over the next two weeks, the House COVID-19 committee would continue to meet and that the House would return on May 18 for a “normal” session. He said proxy voting would end, which means more House members would be in the chamber at once.
Moore said rules about access to the Legislative Building would be reassessed at that point. This week only lawmakers, staff and credentialed press were allowed inside.
Moore told reporters on Thursday that during the time lawmakers are gone, they’ll see how things go with the state reopening and people going back to work.
Cooper extended his statewide stay-at-home order from April 29 through May 8, with a few of the restrictions scheduled to start to lift after that under what Cooper described as a “modified” stay-at-home order. The stay-at-home order wouldn’t lift until the second phase, which would likely be the end of May.
Most lawmakers from both parties have been supportive of Cooper’s order, though they have started to question the slow-phased opening.
Six Republican House members in the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, including Appropriations Chair Rep. Jason Saine, signed a letter calling on states to safely reopen the economy, though their letter doesn’t say exactly how.
On Tuesday, lawmakers arrived for the session to protesters who want the governor to lift restrictions sooner than later.