NC virus relief aid heads to Cooper as General Assembly ends: What it means for you

RALEIGH — House Bill 1105, also known as Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, is headed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk after passing the North Carolina House and Senate.

The North Carolina legislature finalized a plan Thursday to spend $1.1 billion of the state’s remaining COVID-19 relief funds from Washington, including direct cash payments to nearly 2 million families.

The package, which also provides a $50 uptick in weekly unemployment benefits and more funds for virus testing, tracing and personal protective equipment, cleared its final legislative hurdle with a lopsided House vote.

>> Have questions about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the Carolinas? We have an entire section dedicated to coverage of the outbreak -- CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

HB1105 includes $440 million to send every North Carolina household with at least one child a one-time check of $335.

”I know $335 isn’t going to pay off a mortgage, but it will put a dent in the cost of electronic devices or help pay for a tutor if a child can’t seem to tackle a new concept,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham County, added. “Or maybe it will pay for a sitter and a dinner out. I’m really not worried about how parents spend that $335. All I know is they need it. They deserve it.”

The remaining cash checks off a laundry list of bipartisan priorities, including boosts in funds to COVID-19 vaccine research, personal protective equipment, testing supplies, broadband internet access in rural areas, plus an extra $50 a week to those receiving unemployment aid.

”This bill is about equipping the State of North Carolina with tools to help weather the storm of school closures and economic loss,” Berger said.

The measure, which already cleared the Senate by a comfortable margin on Wednesday, now heads to Cooper. While many of his spending recommendations for this two-day work session were ignored by Republican legislative leaders, Cooper hasn’t complained loudly about the final product that most Democratic legislators ended up supporting. His office didn’t say late Thursday whether he’d sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Money is also being spent to help struggling small businesses and to recruit poll workers on Election Day. Families with at least one child will receive by mid-December $335 in stimulus-style payments. While designed to help families with child care or tutoring school children struggling with online classes, the money can be used for anything.

“This package does so much good for so many people,” Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican and budget writer, said during House floor debate. “We are funding so much to help so many today — now.”

Like Wednesday in the Senate, several Democrats in the House complained they were left out while the bill was crafted. Democrats also pitched again the expansion of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of uninsured people, which Republicans have refused for years even though Washington would foot most of that bill.

Still, most Democrats joined all Republicans present in voting 104-10 for what the Senate passed.

“We’re just not doing enough for those that we can be helping,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat who voted for the package. She cited the needs of people who could be evicted soon from their homes due to job losses, as well as city and county governments.

Cooper spokesperson Dory MacMillan said the governor is pleased lawmakers agreed to some of his recommendations on expanding broadband and ensuring K-12 school districts won’t be penalized financially should enrollments drop.

But “they could have done much more to help North Carolinians in need,” MacMillan said, citing Medicaid expansion. “Legislators are leaving funds on the table and people in the lurch in a time of great crisis.”

Republicans contend they have already done a great deal even before Thursday, when the General Assembly officially adjourned their two-year session. All 170 legislative seats are on the November ballot. Cooper is also running for reelection.

During work sessions this spring, legislators allocated well over $2 billion in North Carolina’s $3.5 billion share of COVID relief funds.

More than $300 million that had been earmarked to replace state transportation and other tax revenues had to be repurposed this week because Congress did not alter rules to spend them in that fashion. The state’s share of federal funds have to be disbursed by the end of the year.

GOP leaders refused to take up Cooper’s proposal to spend $559 million in additional state revenues in part to give $2,000 bonuses to public school teachers and smaller one-time payments to other educators. Republicans said it was too risky to spend more state dollars as the pandemic continued. But they did locate $68 million in state money to respond to recent hurricanes and earthquakes in the mountains.

The final bill also makes other education policy decisions. The state’s two virtual public charter schools can enroll 3,800 more students this year, and the eligibility for children to receive taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools was expanded.

The additional $50 weekly unemployment benefit approved would continue through the end of the year. Also on Thursday, the state Division of Employment Security said it had started distributing to displaced workers extended federal benefits of $300 a week mandated through an executive order by President Donald Trump. But that money only covers three weeks, initially.

Republicans said the measure is critical to providing choice to parents who want to send their children to a school that currently provides in-person learning.

”I think about that single mother,” Berger said. “Maybe she can see her child slipping. Not grasping concepts. Maybe she knows her child needs to be in a classroom. Why shouldn’t she have the opportunity to send a child to a school that’s open?”

Public school teachers, however, and their Democratic supporters, worry the vouchers could negatively affect public schools, which provide education, meals and resources to poor and minority students.

”We know there are many competing uses for dwindling COVID relief funding,” Tamika Kelly, a music teacher and president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, asserted. “But it’s hard to imagine a more important place to spend it than on public education.”

Berger had pointed words about the school-choice issue.

”How can it be that in a society so focused on equality, it’s OK for a major political party to say making decisions about your child’s education is reserved only for the wealthy elite?” he said. “School choice should not be a privilege available only to those who can afford it. Parental school choice is a right, and we will fund it.”