With chances for a last-minute deal dwindling, state and local officials are keeping a close eye on relief bill negotiations in Washington while preparing for the end of federal unemployment payments and eviction protections that could create even more chaos as it ripples through the economy.

A $600 per week federal supplement to unemployment checks ended last week. A moratorium on evictions from federal housing and for homeowners with mortgages backed by the Veterans Administration or Federal Housing Administration ends Friday.

Fourth District U.S. Rep. David Price, who chairs a House housing and transportation appropriations committee, said North Carolina will see a wave of evictions and foreclosures without further relief.

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“That’s exactly what we’re facing,” Price said in a recent interview with Carolina Public Press. Failure to renew the unemployment help, he said, would drive the number even higher. “If that unemployment gets reduced or, God forbid, goes away, then I think we’re really in trouble.”

With the window closing for an end-of-the-month deal and House and Senate plans still far apart on key priorities, both chambers are looking at a temporary stopgap measure that would address the extension of unemployment payments while other parts of the bill are worked out.

In a letter to the state’s congressional delegation earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper called the unemployment assistance essential, a lifeline for the state’s economy as well as for those who have lost their jobs. Negotiations continued Thursday night.

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Local governments call for aid

Price said that beyond evictions and unemployment, House negotiators want to see the next relief package include more money for local and state governments. Only Guilford, Wake and Mecklenburg, the state’s three largest counties, received direct help under previous federal aid bills.

The HEROES Act, the plan passed by the House in May, includes $500 million over two years for counties and municipalities. Local funding was not in the Senate relief package introduced on Monday.

Scott Mooneyham, director of political communications and coordination for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said despite that, the organization and its members are confident some aid to local governments will be in the new bill.

“Local elected officials across North Carolina have made a strong case, often in direct conversations with members of our congressional delegation, that in order for economic recovery to proceed, cities and towns must be made whole,” Mooneyham said.

“Besides being major employers, local government investment in infrastructure is a key driver of economic activity across the country. Unfortunately, those investments will also be the first place cuts are made if Congress does not act.”

In a letter sent this week, a coalition of North Carolina mayors urged Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to add the aid to the Senate bill. A similar request from a group of mayors in the state’s 2nd Congressional District pointed to dwindling revenues at local utilities and more and more customers unable to pay.

Some opposition also exists to further state and local aid. Three North Carolina state representatives, Reps. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston, and George Cleveland, R-Onslow, were among more than 150 state legislators from across the country who signed on to a July 28 letter to Congress from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, saying more aid would damage state autonomy and lead to higher taxes.

“The American people are being forced to make difficult but fiscally responsible decisions during the pandemic, and states need to do the same,” the letter states.

Meanwhile, local aid from a previous round of federal relief is starting to flow. On Thursday, the state’s new Pandemic Recovery Office announced that 97 counties would split $150 million in federal relief funds under a distribution plan approved by the legislature in its recent session.

Counties would get a base amount of $250,000, and funds above that are based on population. The money would go mainly for COVID-19-related expenses, including testing at public hospitals and clinics; personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies; additional payroll for public safety and health care workers; and funds for teleworking, distance learning and homeless programs.

“Local governments need stability and funding to cover the costs of COVID-19 response, and we are working quickly to get these resources where they are needed,” Cooper said in a statement announcing the funds.

The governor is also expected to announce a plan to help avoid thousands of utility disconnections that were suspended under an executive order in March, which expires at the end of this month.

This week, the N.C. Utilities Commission issued an order extending the moratorium on shutoffs for Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and PSNC customers through Aug. 31 and giving customers 12 months to cover overdue balances.

Editor’s note: This article was updated shortly after publication on July 31, 2020, to include information on three North Carolina legislators who have signed on to a national letter opposing additional federal aid.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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