Political notebook: State lawmakers to reconvene this week, disperse remaining COVID-19 funds

Published 9:05 am Monday, August 31, 2020

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — The North Carolina General Assembly will reconvene in Raleigh Wednesday to disperse remaining COVID-19 funds, but legislators are concerned the federal government has yet to pass another round of funding.

State lawmakers recessed the legislative session on July 8 without passing a budget or dispersing all available COVID-19 funds. They will reconvene on Wednesday and Thursday.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, said there is nearly $1 billion in funding to be dispersed across the state, and he anticipates a significant chunk will go to education-related matters. Warren said he’s seen various presentations from K-12 schools, community colleges and the UNC system, who collectively are requesting about $650 million.

Between July and September, some legislators met for committee meetings. Appropriations chairs have been doing most of the work ahead of Wednesday and reviewing revenue streams, he said. Lawmakers also continue to review the money that’s been allocated already and its impact. Warren chairs multiple standing committees in the House, including the Finance and State and Local Government committees.

Warren is also the vice chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. Rep. Julia Howard, R-77, also serves on that committee. Warren said that committee is working to determine how unemployment benefits can be extended and how much the state can help, adding that it can be challenging as they navigate businesses reopening while competing with people making more money from unemployment, he said.

“Right now, it’s the economy versus the virus,” Howard said, adding that Gov. Roy Cooper and federal leaders have been doing the best they can to mitigate the pandemic.

But the lack of guidance and an additional round of COVID-19 funding from the federal government poses another challenge, said Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, especially since lawmakers adjourned in July with the expectation more funds would become available.

As negotiations about the next stimulus package stalled in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump on Aug. 8 signed several COVID-19 relief executive actions, including the temporary suspension of payroll taxes, measures to reduce evictions, extending unemployment benefits and deferring some payments on student loans. However, some have questioned the legality of the orders, particularly the temporary suspension of payroll taxes.

Additionally, Trump’s order calls on the federal government to contribute $300 to each unemployed person receiving benefits, and calls on states to make up the remaining $100 — down from the $600 unemployed persons were receiving until July 31.

Ford said the state’s unemployment fund is depleting, but people still need that money. And if state lawmakers don’t receive guidance or another round of funding, it’s likely the General Assembly will have to reconvene again within the coming weeks.

“Local governments are waiting on us, and we’re having to wait on D.C.,” Ford said.

Howard said no one knows what the federal government actions will look like, but that lawmakers shouldn’t disperse funds when they reconvene upon the expectation that money will be received elsewhere. For now, she said, state legislators know what’s available in COVID-19 funds and what’s in the reserves.

Bakari Sellers endorses Mayor Pro Tem Heggins for state House race

SALISBURY — CNN political commentator and author Bakari Sellers has endorsed Salisbury Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins in the North Carolina House District 76 race.

Heggins, a Democrat, is vying to unseat Rep. Harren Warren, who has served in the state House since 2010.

Sellers, also an attorney, became the youngest African-American elected official in the U.S. at the age of 22 when he won a seat in the South Carolina legislature in 2006.

“Mayor Pro Tem Heggins’ commitment to marginalized communities is reflected in a comprehensive agenda that aims to tackle disparities that existed in North Carolina for far too long. She is unafraid to stand with public school teachers and has laid out a real vision to reform our broken criminal justice system,” Sellers said. “I am proud to endorse Al Heggins, and I look forward to her leadership in building a safer and more inclusive North Carolina.”

Heggins also broke barriers by being the first Black woman elected to the Salisbury City Council and the first Black woman to serve as Salisbury’s mayor.

“Receiving this endorsement from Bakari Sellers is very humbling and a huge honor,” Heggins said. “He is the kind of leader who models authentic and transformative public service. Bakari is about honoring the public we serve and boldly speaking to how elected officials must address the issues of poverty, racial disparities and systemic failures with exigency. I happen to agree.”

Sellers will be the featured guest speaker during a virtual fundraiser for Heggins on Sept. 27.

Senate Republicans, Lt. Gov. Forest criticize Cooper’s ‘four-months-late’ budget proposal

RALEIGH — Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper presented his 2020-21 budget proposal for the state, which provided recommendations for the remaining federal CARES Act funding, Medicaid expansion and pay raises for school employees.

The budget laid out proposals for spending the state’s more than $900 million remaining federal COVID-19 funds. Cooper proposed $175 million be used for public health services, $132 million for K-12 public schools, $200 million in aid for local governments and $50 million for high speed internet access. Other sources of funds Cooper outlined included rent, mortgage and utility relief, the state’s personal protective equipment supply and one-time bonuses for school employees.

He did not propose any budget cuts, and calls for the expansion of Medicaid.

“Taking care of people’s health during a global pandemic shouldn’t be a question,” Cooper said during a news conference. “We can expand Medicaid right now if the legislature would agree. Though it’s been overdue for years, there’s never been a better time or greater need to do the right thing.”

But Senate Republicans, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, have criticized the “four-months-late” budget, particularly as it strips funding from the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program provides funding to children in low-income families as a means to expand school choice among K-12 students.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the Opportunity Scholarships program is well-supported by many, including Black Democrats.

Ballard cited a nationwide poll conducted by The Benenson Strategy Group for Democrats for Education Reform from August until September, via phone and online interviews. The poll interviewed 1,721 likely 2020 voters, including an oversample of 1,227 likely Democratic primary voters.

The poll found that 81% of Democratic primary voters and 89% of black Democratic primary voters support expanding public school choice options, including charter schools, and that 80% of voters, including 78% of Democratic primary voters and 84% of black Democratic primary voters, support a proposal to expand the charter schools sector so long as tougher accountability rules are put in place.

“The governor uses a lot of buzz words, like ‘equity,’ but his four-months-late budget proposal is anything but equitable. It strips low-income children, many of whom are Black, from the chance to choose the education that best suits their needs,” Ballard said. “Under the governor’s ‘equity’ plan, only the wealthy can attend private school.”

Forest, a Republican running against Cooper in the gubernatorial race, said while North Carolina ranks No. 1 in the Southeast for increasing K-12 funding and per-pupil spending, increased funding doesn’t always equate to better outcomes.

“Gov. Cooper has sided with the far-left once again by proposing to gut our state’s K-12 Opportunity Scholarships for low-income families,” Forest said in a statement. “His message to parents across our state remains clear: He’s more concerned about playing politics with our children’s education than he is with offering opportunity and full-time instruction to those who need it most. If private schools are good for Gov. Cooper and his family, why does he want to deny the same option to thousands of hard-working North Carolina families?”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

email author More by Natalie