‘More good than bad:’ Local legislators satisfied with state’s COVID-19 relief package

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 6, 2020

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — While local lawmakers don’t see the recently passed COVID-19 relief package as a complete victory, they say the $1.1 billion package includes “more good than bad.”

The N.C. General Assembly adjourned Thursday and sent to Gov. Roy Cooper a COVID-19 relief package totaling the state’s $1.1 billion of remaining coronavirus relief funds from the federal government. Cooper said Friday he would sign the bill into law, but added that it followed some recommendations and fell short in other areas like expanding Medicaid, paying educators more and helping with rent and utilities and the unemployed.

“We’ll never have enough money” to fund all of the issues the state has at one time, said Rep. Harry Warren, R-76. Like Cooper, Warren said it’s “a very good bill” that’s broad in the subjects it covers. And Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, said he’s never seen a budget-related item that’s he’s agreed with 100%.

The package includes a $50 increase in weekly unemployment benefits. Rep. Julia Howard, R-77, is co-chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. Warren is also a member.

Warren said a key provision is that the unemployment insurance benefits come from the coronavirus relief funds and not the state’s unemployment insurance fund. Howard, however, said extending unemployment benefits was the wrong thing to do as “employers are begging us” to get people back to work.

Ford said he’s heard from numerous constituents asking, “When can we get back to work?” Additionally, business owners have asked when they can fully reopen.

“I hope what we did can help some people and help them get by,” Ford said. “It’s rough on everybody.”

The state has begun distributing a weekly boost of $300 in unemployment funding, allowed by President Donald Trump in an executive order, but that money is only expected to cover three weeks, according to an article by the Associated Press.

Because of the state’s recently passed bill, families with at least one child who already qualify for the child care tax credit will receive $335 in stimulus-style payments by mid-December. Howard said it will be difficult for the state Department of Revenue to review and verify every taxpayer’s information in order to issue the payments, adding that it could be a problem particularly for those who don’t file tax returns but still qualify for the tax credit.

Part of the package also includes about $30 million for broadband expansion. And while Warren said he would have liked to see more funding for broadband, the money is critically important for economic development and remote schooling.

Additionally, $115 million in funds was allocated for K-12 education. While Cooper’s budget proposed on Aug. 26 didn’t include funding for Opportunity Scholarships, designated for low-income students to attend private charter schools, Republicans agreed to expand eligibility for children receiving those scholarships. Funding also went to assist struggling small businesses, increase personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing as well as to recruit poll workers for the upcoming election.

Warren said he’s proud part of the package included regulatory relief for various agencies across the state. For example, the requirements for soil scientists to obtain licenses were modified to allow inspections to continue. A hold-up in inspections could hold-up construction sites otherwise, he said.

Cooper also proposed raises for teachers in his budget, but those raises weren’t included in last week’s COVID-19 package.

Additionally, the package includes policies that protect K-12 school districts from being penalized financially if their enrollment drops amid the pandemic.

Rowan County received a significant piece of the funding, as $1.5 million has been allocated to the N.C. Transportation Museum, which Warren said was “absolutely critical” to sustain the museum.

“It’s undeniably the economic engine for Spencer, East Spencer and Salisbury — and Rowan County for that matter,” Warren said.

Ford has been vocal about funding for the museum. And Ford said he educated members of the General Assembly on the museum, most of whom didn’t know much about its benefits.

He added that he was surprised the museum received $1.5 million. Ford requested $1 million.

“I’m glad that Rowan got their piece,” Howard said.

Though Medicaid expansion didn’t make the final package — a request among Democrats and the governor — most House Democrats joined Republicans to pass the relief package. The final vote in the House was 104-10. In the Senate, the final vote was 44-5.

“I think we did all we could,” Howard said. “I voted for it because there’s more good in it than bad.”

Ford said the state should take care of the disabled who need Medicaid assistance before Medicaid expansion.

“In the end, people said, ‘Let’s take what we can get,'” Ford said.

Though state lawmakers adjourned, they can still return if the federal government passes another round of stimulus funding or upon request from the governor. The governor could call on lawmakers to return in the event of a natural disaster, for example.

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.

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