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Local legislators reflect on passage of state’s COVID-19 relief bills

By Liz Moomey

liz.moomey@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — COVID-19 relief bills went to the governor’s desk over the weekend with unanimous support and were signed into law Monday.

The relief package was met with approval, too, from the area’s state representatives and senator. Among other things, the bills provide $1.6 billion for schools, hospitals, governments and researchers in the state. Included is $85 millions for universities to research treatments, $95 million for rural and teaching hospitals, $50 million for personal protective equipment, $125 million to expand a business loan fund run by the Golden Leaf Foundation and $75 million for school nutrition programs.

Rep. Julia Howard, R-77, was the co-chair of the House’s Economic Support Working Group, and Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, was a member, adding input on the economic needs of business owners and citizens who had just lost their job due to the pandemic. Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, said he had daily caucus meetings to discuss their constituents’ needs with fellow Republicans. Leaders then would meet with Democrats and Senate Leader Phil Berger.

Rep. Wayne Sasser, a Republican from Stanly County, was on the Health Care Working Group and said there was a lot of compromise. Sasser said he was impressed and pleased about the work done that would have generally taken five to 10 months.

“The good thing was it was bipartisan,” Sasser said. “We had committees. We had chairs that were Democrat and chairs that were Republicans. Everybody seemed to work together. It was encouraging and we can actually do the state business and not have to hate people and all that kind of foolishness.”

It took the General Assembly six days to open its session and vote on the bills, a regulatory and a funding bill. Warren said it ran smoothly because the bill creation process didn’t take place in a week; it started in mid-March “in a very extremely transparent method with bi-partisan collaboration.”

“The response to COVID-19 and the drafting on that legislation was done about as apolitical as you can be,” Warren said. “It was about responding to the needs of all of our people. There was no partisanship.”

Warren said everybody in the legislature had an opportunity to make suggestions through a committee member or by being on a committee themselves.

Howard said there were portions of the final approved bill, including the health care aspect, that she wasn’t able to “keep up with” as she normally would. But she trusted co-chairs who shepherded the bill to passage.

“That’s where you learn you can’t be everything and see everything, so you rely on your counterparts to what they think is best,” she said.

Howard said the final product, which distributes half of the funds from the federal government, was good and now it’s time to move on to next steps. The money must be used as a response to the outbreak and allocated by Dec. 31.

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-83, said in a news release on Saturday, “It is really a good feeling when we can come together on something for the good of our citizens, as we have done today.”

Though, in a follow-up, Pittman said Cooper has done a lot of damage to businesses by putting people out of work and “decimating the economy.”

“I believe the government, in the person of the legislature, had no choice but to try to repair some of the damage by taking the federal funds we received for the purpose and offering relief to businesses and unemployed individuals,” Pittman said in an email.

Ford said unanimous support is good, but there were some areas he did not agree with.

“You have to weigh the good and the bad and hope the good outweigh the bad,” he said.

He said one item was distributing $507,000 to the National Endowment for the Arts. Ford said he didn’t understand why the federal government didn’t keep the money initially and that he would have liked to see more money go to help local businesses.

“When you help local businesses, then you help the local people that work at those local businesses,” he said.

Sasser proposed having a section of the bill to allow pharmacists to administer COVID-19 tests and antibody tests. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allows pharmacists to do so nationwide, but Sasser said a state law would provide some oversight. Due to issues with language, the amendment was not included in the final bill.

Sasser said it wasn’t worth fighting for, especially with the capability on a federal level to do so.

“Ultimately it’s all about helping the patient,” he said. “It’s not about helping the drug store or the pharmacists or the insurance company. It’s about making things better for the patient, like delivery.”

Sasser said he wanted to see more funding to purchase more naloxone, a drug to treat narcotic overdoses.

Warren said he had issues with the notary public changes.

Pittman said he would not have given as much funding to the University of North Carolina System, giving it instead to the community college system.

“I feel the community college system is more important in addressing the needs of workers who might need training to find new jobs,” he said.

The Senate discussed increasing the maximum weekly state unemployment benefit from $350 to $450 once federal benefits are exhausted. Howard said she was glad it was negotiated out.

“I don’t know why everybody is so upside down about the amount of money (in unemployment insurance) because honey it’s going to go fast with extended benefits and things like that,” she said.

The legislature will hold skeletal session for the next couple of weeks.

“This gives us time to see what develops in the handling of COVID-19. It gives us opportunity to see how well the money that has been appropriated, how effective it is in alleviating some of the financial burdens,” Warren said. “As we come into the phase one, it gives us the opportunity to see how much the economy is bouncing back.”

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