North Carolina Senate passes third COVID-19 relief package

The North Carolina Senate passed a relief package Wednesday that includes more than $1 billion in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

The package, which sets aside $440 million for grants for parents to help offset unexpected costs related to school closures, has been criticized by Democrats for not offering enough relief to North Carolinians.

“There was no input from Democrats in the Republican relief bill – and it shows,” said Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake. “Democrats would have made better use of this money. The relief bill gives us more of the same, tired Republican pork projects.”

The measure, House Bill 1105, passed the Senate on Wednesday with a 44-5 vote.

Before the General Assembly reconvened Wednesday, the state had $900 million remaining in unused CARES Act funds. Lawmakers were able, however, to also reallocate unused funds from a small business grant program and interest, bringing the third relief package’s total to $1.1 billion.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper proposed spending most of the funding on public health services and on aid for local governments.

Cooper and Republicans prioritized securing a stockpile of personal protective equipment. Lawmakers want to spend at least $72 million directly on personal protective equipment and additional money was coupled with other investments.

Ahead of Senate Appropriations Committee discussions Wednesday, chief budget writer Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said Democrats were welcomed to propose amendments to strip the personal protective equipment funding if they considered it pork spending.

“It’s so disingenuous to claim an area of bipartisan agreement is some Republican pork effort,” Onslow said.

Senate Democrats did not amend personal protective equipment allocations Wednesday. Still, Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, said he was concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment for the University of North Carolina, where COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported.

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Duplin, however, said other federal programs can provide colleges with personal protective equipment.

The measure provides the UNC system and its colleges $5 million for testing and quarantine and $13 million for personal protective equipment. The community college system would get $5 million for personal protective equipment and testing, and an additional $5 million for equipment and workforce training.

Although there were differences in the amount of the investments, the governor and lawmakers agreed on spending money on equipment for colleges, child care services, broadband access, testing, food banks and small business grants.

Cooper’s plan also called for earmarking $132 million to provide resources to protect students, teachers and staff. The legislative proposal, however, focuses on resources for remote learning.

In addition to the $335 in one-time payments to households with children, lawmakers have proposed financing partnerships with local organizations and operational grants for child care facilities to offer remote learning assistance to school-aged children.

The measure also provides an additional $50 a week for unemployed workers. It expands eligibility for school-choice vouchers and secures current per-student funding for the school year.

Absent from the measure is Cooper’s proposal for $50 million for tracing and testing in rural and marginalized communities.

Jackson said they did not see a significant need for it.

“Well, we’ve tried to put the money where we felt the most need was from what we’re hearing,” he said.

Cooper’s requests for $200 million for local governments and $18 million for underutilized businesses also were not in the legislative proposal.

However, the measure would provide $2 million to the Carolina Small Business Development Fund, which Jackson said would help micro-businesses.

“We know this mainly will be used for predominantly small – very small – businesses that have a hard time at a commercial bank,” he said.

The bill now heads to the House.

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