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NC Senate approves $1B federal virus relief package

By GARY D. ROBERTSON
Associated Press

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly on Wednesday swiftly advanced a Republican proposal to spend another $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, with almost half going to families in stimulus-style checks.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his legislative allies didn’t seek the direct payments of $335 for parents, which could go to pay for child care and education materials for kids staying at home for school. Some Democrats complained the package didn’t go far enough, and others criticized an item to allow more families to benefit from taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools starting early next year.

But most Democrats still joined all Republicans in the Senate to vote 44-5 in favor of the broad COVID-19 relief package containing these and other provisions. The House was expected to vote Thursday on the measure and send it to Cooper before wrapping up a two-day work session.

The GOP package also includes money for coronavirus testing, tracing and personal protective equipment, as well as funds to raise weekly unemployment benefits by $50 and give Election Day poll workers another $100. K-12 public schools also wouldn’t be penalized financially if enrollment falls while they are holding classes remotely. There’s also money to address recent natural disasters and to help businesses that have retained employees during the pandemic.

“This bill is about equipping the people of the state of North Carolina with tools to help weather the storm of school closures and economic loss,” Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County said at a news conference.

The lynchpin of the package remains the one-time payments to families of nearly 2 million children in the state. Most who filed tax returns for 2019 would get the money automatically by mid-December, although people who didn’t make enough to file a return could apply until Oct. 15 for the payment.

The money, Berger said, could be used for whatever a parent needs, such as a child’s electronic device or tutor.

“Parents face many challenges this year that they’ve never had to deal with before,” House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County said, adding that getting them a “little extra help to take care of those children, I think, is key.”

Last week Cooper pitched his own $978 million package to spend the federal COVID relief funds, and the GOP package contained some items that he requested. But other items were ignored, and GOP legislators refused to consider the governor’s additional request to spend $559 million in state tax dollars in part for teacher bonuses, and at-risk students. Cooper also wanted Republicans to finally expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of additional uninsured people.

A Medicaid expansion amendment by Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County was ruled out of order. Republicans also used parliamentary maneuvers to halt several other Democratic amendments.

“This is not a serious relief package,” said Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County, calling it “a response to the pandemic that’s more political than anything else.”

But Cooper hasn’t said much about the Republican proposal, and the support from Senate Democrats suggest vetoing it would be risky entering a fall election campaign in which both he and all 170 legislators are on the ballot. Cooper’s office didn’t respond to an email late Wednesday about the package.

Republicans said the state’s financial situation is too precarious under COVID-19 to spend more tax dollars and blamed Cooper for vetoing permanent teacher pay raises last year. Teachers already are receiving experienced-based raises and $350 bonuses this year.

As the General Assembly returned to work for the first time in two months, the Senate also approved a separate measure designed to provide targeted financial incentives to bring an unnamed “sports championship employer” to the state. The bill sponsor, Sen. Tom McInnis of Richmond County, said a confidentiality agreement prevented him from naming the employer but that an announcement would occur next week.

In July, lawmakers were hopeful that on their return, Congress would have provided more relief funds, creating more certainty about the state’s economic picture. That hasn’t happened, and state economists have yet to agree on whether to adjust the revenue forecast for this fiscal year.

Compared to the July session, a larger percentage of legislators — particularly Republicans — wore face masks within the Legislative Building. Many GOP lawmakers had been skeptical of face coverings in the spring. The building remained open to the public, and visitors and staff got temperature readings before entering as a precaution.

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