Two North Carolina legislative bills aimed at responding to the COVID-19 pandemic became law Monday with promises of more legislation to come.
The bills, which included more than $1.5 billion in appropriations and dozens of policy changes across state government, passed quickly and unanimously in both chambers on Saturday afternoon.
On Monday, in a rare joint appearance featuring appropriate social distancing, House and Senate leaders from both parties joined Gov. Roy Cooper at State Emergency Management Headquarters for a briefing and bill signing, each emphasizing in their remarks the bipartisan nature of the effort.
“This is a time that North Carolina has truly come together to fight this disease,” Cooper said.
“These new laws were passed unanimously, every Democrat and every Republican supporting them. I appreciate these leaders reaching consensus with each other and our office to move quickly so that we can test and trace this disease and also get relief to people and businesses that need it. This emergency funding is just a first step. There will be more work ahead.”
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, who established a select committee March 20 to develop bills headed by both the House minority and majority leaders, said it was important to respond with unity.
“I appreciate the bipartisan spirit in which both the House, the Senate and the governor approached this,” Moore said. “I know that we’ll keep working together. We’re going to get through this.”
The bill signing was not celebratory, however. It came on a day when the state reached three grim milestones: 12,000 confirmed cases, 500 deaths and 1 million claims for unemployment.
Spending in the legislation includes:
- $50 million for masks and other personal protective equipment;
- $150 million for relief to counties and municipalities.
- $25 million for testing and contact tracing.
- $25 million for assisted living facilities.
- $65 million backstop for rural hospitals.
- $30 million for computers and other devices for students.
- $75 million for school nutrition programs.
- $125 million small-business loan program and funding for coronavirus research.
Policy provisions in the bill include waivers for school requirements for this year and planning requirements for next year and sets the school opening date at Aug. 17.
Both bills are titled the COVID-19 Recovery Act. The official breakdown of the funding legislation, House Bill 1043, is available online.
The breakdown of the policy provisions in Senate Bill 704 is also available online.
Consensus going forward a challenge
Cooper and legislative leaders acknowledged that the initial legislation is a compilation of spending and policies where there’s consensus across party lines and that there are significant differences on how to proceed in some areas.
Cooper and House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said they want to see the state increase unemployment benefits and take steps to close the health insurance gap.
A provision pushed by Democrats on the committee that would have provided a limited, temporary expansion of Medicaid was not included in the bill. Also not in the final bill was a Senate-backed plan to expand unemployment benefits that would have raised the weekly benefit from $350 to $400.
“I know this is just a start,” Jackson said, adding that he’s already thinking about what’s next.
He said the state needs to expand health insurance coverage, improve its unemployment system and provide a safety net so that workers who are sick can stay home.
“Today we take a good step, but I hope it is just that, the first step, and I look forward to working with you all on the next relief package,” he said.
Cooper, who has pushed for Medicaid expansion throughout his term, said it’s clear that the state will have to find ways to expand insurance coverage.
The pandemic, he said, “put a shining light on people who don’t have health insurance and how that can affect every one of us.
Berger, who has staunchly opposed Medicaid expansion, said he does have hopes that unemployment benefits can be expanded in the next relief package.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to move in the direction that the Senate had in its bill,” Berger said.
But going forward, he warned that the state was facing difficult budget choices.
“The challenge that we face at this point is not only trying to deal directly with the COVID-19 direct repercussions,” Berger said. “The other challenge is how do we make sure that we fund state government in a fashion that’s necessary and appropriate.”
Going into the crisis, he said, the state was in good shape with about $2 billion in unappropriated funds and $1.2 billion in its emergency fund. But with the state looking at a shortfall in excess of $4 billion next year, Berger said, even those funds won’t cover the gap.
Unusual rules, unusual session
The legislature scheduled last week’s start date for the even-year short session months ago and opted not to move the date up to give time to work on the COVID-19 legislation.
With the first set of bills now law, both chambers will hold skeleton sessions for the next two weeks and return May 18.
Even then, it is unlikely that business on Jones Street will return to the old normal.
The 120-member House has adopted new social-distancing rules for the session. Committees have shifted to online teleconferences with some members and staff on-site in the committee room, some in their offices and some beaming in from their districts.
House floor votes, which usually take 15 seconds, can now be extended up to 40 minutes so representatives can keep the number of members in the chamber at any one time to a minimum.
Last week, members were also allowed to vote by proxy, and from their desks on the floor, both House Minority Leader Jackson and Majority Leader John Bell held teleconferences with members of their caucuses and then recorded and reported their votes.
For the first time, video of the committee teleconferences and proceedings on the House floor was livestreamed.
Going forward, Moore told members on Saturday that the COVID select committee working groups would continue to meet over the next few weeks and gather assessments on the impacts of the pandemic in preparation for another round of relief legislation. Regular House committees would also resume work this month as well.
Meanwhile, no decision has been made on when the legislative complex would reopen to members of the public. For last week’s session, the building was closed to visitors, and only legislators, staff and credentialed members of the press, who watched the proceedings from the visitors gallery, were allowed access.
Temperature checks were required for anyone entering the building.