RALEIGH — The General Assembly approved about $1 billion in COVID-19 relief and disaster aid and brought the curtain down on a tumultuous two-year session Thursday.
The wide-ranging legislation includes $335 for families with children, a $50-a-week boost in unemployment benefits and more funds for broadband expansion, health care supplies, food banks, schools and universities.
The bill also includes $44.5 million in disaster aid, most of it state matches for federal relief for recent hurricanes as well as $24 million in help for communities in Allegheny County damaged in the recent earthquake. An additional $750,000 was set aside to be used for the state match for assistance to Bertie County in its recovery from the deadly tornado spawned by Hurricane Isaias last month.
The 52-page bill passed by wide margins in both chambers, clearing the Senate first in a 45-5 vote followed by the House, which approved the bill 104-11.
One of the bill’s main authors, Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, said that although it has been a difficult time, the state and its citizens will persevere.
“We’ve all had to face days of uncertainty, stress and major lifestyle changes,” he said.
“None of us have faced a health crisis quite like this. Some have lost loved ones, others have been separated from family, others have lost jobs. Yet we are a state that has faced hardships before, from hurricanes, fires, droughts, earthquakes and tornados, and each time we come back even stronger. This time we will do it again, more determined and stronger than ever. We will not let this pandemic defeat us.”
Despite the lopsided vote, the way the bill was assembled drew a sharp rebuke from Democrats, who said they were cut out of negotiations in another opaque process that eliminated open hearings and public input.
“A few people got together in a backroom or online in their basement and hammered out this budget,” House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said. “The rest of us had no way to contribute our ideas.”
He said he would vote against the bill, not over a specific section or omission, but because “unanimous votes tell the public something is great or noncontroversial.”
While many parts of the bill are helpful, he said, the state isn’t doing enough for the majority of people who are hurting, and the bill offers no relief to bar and restaurant owners and employees as well as others in businesses that must remain closed.
“We’re in a crisis, a crisis of health, a crisis of jobs, a crisis of small business, a crisis of schools,” Jackson said.
“No political leader in this country caused the crisis, an infectious disease did that, but it’s our job to work together and do that to get us out of it. Today’s bill helps a little, but in the end, I think we could have done a lot more.”
Several Democrats blasted their GOP counterparts for their refusal to expand Medicaid and in a departure from past budget debates in which Medicaid expansion was brought up, House leaders opted to let proponents of expansion say their piece rather than use the chamber’s rules that would have put them out of order.
Typically during floor debate, legislators are required to stick to the contents of what is in the bill that’s up for a vote.
“My problem is that we’re just not doing enough for those we can be helping,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham. “Medicaid expansion during a pandemic to many of us is a no-brainer.”
The call for Medicaid expansion also echoed through the Senate Wednesday night as the chamber took up the COVID relief bill. Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, excoriated his colleagues for not considering it, saying it was unconscionable to leave federal dollars on the table and hundreds of thousands without adequate health care at this time.
Unlike the House, where the opposition to expansion was not as fervent, Senate leaders cut off Jackson’s address, saying the issue was not part of the current legislation.
Lambeth, a former health care executive, said the state’s Medicaid system still needs substantial improvements before making any moves on expansion.
Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act has been the key disagreement in budget negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper since Cooper first proposed it in 2017 in his first budget proposal.
He pressed the issue again last year after Republican lost their supermajority status in the 2018 elections, making it a central part of his budget proposal. He vetoed the budget plan passed by the legislature because it did not include expansion, setting off a long standoff in which neither side budged.
The state has continued to operate under the 2018 budget and a series of so-called mini-budgets covering necessary increases, state matching funds for federal grants and areas of state spending not in disagreement.
Cooper included Medicaid expansion, which is paid for with federal funds, as part of his budget plan released last week, which Republican lawmakers rejected.
School vouchers a flash point
A section of the relief bill dealing with Opportunity Scholarships also drew a sharp contrast between GOP leaders and the governor. The scholarships allow state funds to be used for K-12 private school tuition. The voucher program has built up $85 million in unspent funds.
Cooper, who has long opposed the program, wanted to use those funds to help pay for one-time teacher and state employee bonuses, but in their plan, House and Senate budget writers opted to expand the program. The bill relaxes income requirements and lifts caps for students in lower grades.
Proponents argued that with many public schools not holding in-person classes, students and parents who wanted that could use the funds for private schools that are meeting in person.
In budget debate Wednesday and Thursday, Democrats noted the contrast between that proposal and the lack of any additional bonuses or raises for teachers.
Republicans countered by saying that Cooper was sent three different teacher-raise packages, but starting with the original budget, he vetoed all three.
Cooper, who advocated for larger raises than those proposed, included one-time $2,000 bonuses for teachers and principals in last week’s proposal along with a $1,500 bonus for other school employees and a $1,000 bonus for state employees.
Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the $335-per-family payout was a better strategy because it put money directly in the hands of parents to help with child care and other expenses while their children are at home and learning online.
Sine Die Maybe
When lawmakers closed up shop Thursday, they did so with no plans to return, passing a resolution adjourning the legislature sine die, meaning without a date certain. As is custom, the usual bang of the gavel was replaced with a ceremony in which the doors of both chambers are opened and a hanky is dropped by the clerks in each chamber, accompanied by the clang of a bell.
This year, most of the participants in the chambers were masked, and the finality of the moment was tempered by the fact that while officially adjourned until a new legislature is sworn in in January, new federal COVID legislation could necessitate their return.
When legislators adjourned in late June, the plan to return in the first week in September was based in part on the need for more clarity on the state’s finances and the chance for another federal aid package, which would include more financial assistance along with greater flexibility on how states can spend money in prior federal aid legislation.
That flexibility would have allowed the state to use some of the funds to “backfill” revenue losses from the COVID shutdowns. The spending bill passed by the General Assembly in June included $300 million reserved for the state’s financially troubled Department of Transportation, which was already facing budget shortfalls before gas tax revenue dropped precipitously as the pandemic took hold.
Under the new bill, if greater flexibility is granted, those funds would go to DOT along with additional money for university construction projects and repairs.
Should Congress approve additional funds as well, the legislature could return to authorize their distribution. Under the state constitution, the governor can call legislators back to Raleigh or each chamber can do so on its own if requested by three-fifths of the members of each chamber.
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