Catch up on everything that happened at the General Assembly this week as lawmakers returned to Raleigh– some in person, others virtually– to begin the legislative short session and address immediate coronavirus-related measures.
Tuesday, April 28, marked the beginning of a short session unlike any other. As the state remained under a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers convened in a historic manner to begin legislative work and address urgent COVID-19 response measures.
In a series of firsts, legislators held standing committee meetings remotely, wore masks on the chamber floor, extended vote times to allow for social distancing measures and allowed for proxy votes en mass. The House also live-streamed video coverage of its sessions for the first time, which revealed just how empty the chamber floor remained throughout the week as members practiced social distancing and remained mostly in their offices. The emptiness extended throughout the rest of the legislative complex as lobbyists and members of the public were not allowed inside due to health concerns. Despite the unusual nature of the session and challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic, the N.C. General Assembly rose to the occasion and quickly worked together– through chamber and bipartisan divides– to produce solutions for North Carolina.
Tuesday | April 28
In the weeks leading up to April 28 both legislative chambers worked to produce solutions to address pressing funding and policy change needs related to the coronavirus. The House created its Select Committee on COVID-19 which was comprised of four working groups (Health Care, Continuity of State Operations, Economic Support and Education), each of which met regularly via publicly streamed Webex forums to receive stakeholder input and hash out relief measures. Their work culminated late last week and resulted in the production of a handful of bill drafts– some strictly funding measures, others policy or a mix of both– that were officially filed first thing Tuesday, April 28. Meanwhile the Senate took a more behind-the-scenes approach, collecting input from all 50 members over the last few weeks which culminated in one comprehensive bill filed Tuesday as well. The first day back in Session continued to be a busy one, especially for the House as it moved its various bills through their respective policy committees.
Wednesday | April 29
These measures received their second committee hearing in House Rules Committee on Wednesday, where they were ultimately rolled up into one new comprehensive proposed committee substitute (PCS), becoming House Bill 1043 Pandemic Response Act (H.B. 1043). Meanwhile, the Senate proposal, Senate Bill 704 COVID-19 Recovery Act (S.B. 704), moved through Senate Appropriations Committee and then to the floor on Wednesday. Several floor amendments were adopted before the Senate unanimously approved S.B. 704 and sent it by special message to the House, where it was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations.
Thursday | April 30
Thursday the House approved H.B. 1043 by a vote of 117-1 and sent it to the Senate by special message, which then referred it to the Senate Committee on Appropriations/Base Budget. As of Thursday evening both chambers’ coronavirus relief packages were received by the opposite chamber where they would usually be awaiting a vote to either concur or not concur (which would send the bill to conference); however, Speaker Moore explained on the House floor that there would be no official conference committee on either bill. He said that instead the plan was for leaders from both chambers to negotiate and, once a deal was agreed upon, for each chamber to amend the bill they received from the opposite chamber with a PCS containing various elements of the agreed upon package. According to the Legislative Reporting Service, the House would amend S.B. 704 with the funding provisions and the Senate would amend H.B. 1043 with the policy provisions. Under this plan each amended bill would be dependent on the other’s passing in order to take effect, ensuring that both chambers uphold their end of the deal in good faith. Once the amended bills received approval in their respective chambers, each would return to its originating chamber for a concurrence vote to effectively pass both bills.
By late Thursday night Senior Appropriations Chairman Rep. Chuck McGrady tweeted that the House and Senate had agreed on funding amounts, but had yet to reach a compromise regarding the specific provisions within the package. He said negotiations would continue Friday and votes on the final compromise, as split into two PCSes to be amended into both H.B. 1043 and S.B. 704, would be held Saturday.
Saturday | May 2
Saturday morning the legislature revealed its compromise $1.571 billion coronavirus relief package. The House brought forth a PCS to S.B. 704 in Rules Committee that addressed COVID-19 policy items, and the Senate presented a PCS to H.B. 1043 in Appropriations Committee that handled spending measures. Both committees approved the PCSes before them, and both S.B. 704 and H.B. 1043 as amended headed to the House and Senate floors respectively.
Around lunchtime Saturday the House passed S.B. 704 by a vote of 119-0. The Senate took up H.B. 1043 and adopted a technical amendment before approving the bill as amended by a vote of 48-0. Both bills then returned to their originating chambers where they received concurrence votes to adopt changes made by the opposite chamber. H.B. 1043 and S.B. 704 were finally sent to the Governor’s desk via special message Saturday afternoon.
Monday | May 4
Following a joint press conference with legislative leaders on Monday, Gov. Cooper signed S.B. 704 and H.B. 1043 into law.
What relief looks like
So after all of that, let’s run through what the state’s coronavirus relief package actually does. Generally speaking it seeks to make life for everyone — from individuals and businesses to healthcare providers and state agencies– easier during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as provide the necessary resources and direction to best combat the pandemic and serve the people of North Carolina. We break it down bill by bill below.
S.B. 704 COVID-19 Recovery Act (aka the policy piece):
- extends tax-related deadlines without penalty
- provides flexibility in administering and qualifying for unemployment compensation
- provides flexibility around various school reporting requirements, calendars, remote learning guidelines, student skills assessments and educator preparedness requirements
- waives certain standardized testing, reporting and evaluation, and select graduation requirements
- waives interest charges on UNC System student debt
- prioritizes testing for frontline workers when it becomes available
- increases access to medical supplies and strategic stockpiles for the state in future health emergencies
- encourages the consideration of N.C.-based companies when addressing future emergencies
- provides flexibility and authorization for healthcare providers to best respond to COVID-19
- directs healthcare providers to report COVID-19 pre-procedure testing results
- provides increased flexibility for N.C. DHHS to respond to COVID-19
- increases access to and coverage of telehealth
- provides flexibility for notaries, video witnessing and witness requirements for power of attorney
- clarifies when masks worn in public for protective health reasons must be removed
- clarifies electronic signature requirements for warrants and select court orders
- extends various deadlines and provides additional flexibility and emergency guidelines to state agencies
- protects businesses from penalty for response efforts to COVID-19
- addresses various local government operating guidelines, including remote meetings
- extends the life of various commissions, committees and reports
H.B. 1043 Pandemic Response Act (aka the money piece) allocates:
- $50,000,000 to various entities, including hospitals and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) for the purchase of necessary health, life safety and sanitation supplies as well as personal protective equipment (PPE)
- $150,000,000 to counties ineligible to receive funds directly from the federal CARES Act
- $70,000,000 to be used for costs related to the continuity of state operations from March 1 through Dec. 31
- $300,000,000 to the Department of Transportation (DOT) to cover lost revenue resulting from the COVID-19 crisis
- $20,000,000 to various state agencies negatively impacted by the loss anticipated revenue
- $100,000 to reimburse Wake Forest University for its contracted testing services
- a combined $230,988,000 to the Department of Public Instruction to be used to cover school nutrition, improve internet connectivity for students, purchase electronics, establish a cybersecurity network, providing additional physical and mental health supports to students, provide supplemental summer learning programs, support remote instruction efforts (both digital and nondigital) and award to public school units at its discretion
- $660,029 for various schools for the blind and deaf to support nutrition, sanitization and remote learning expenses
- $25,000,000 for the Community Colleges to respond to COVID-19 impacts
- a combined $64,400,000 to the UNC Board of Governors to disburse to both constituent institutions and private postsecondary institutions to respond to COVID-19 impacts
- $15,000,000 to the Duke University Human Vaccine Institute to develop a COVID-19 vaccine
- a combined $70,000,000 to the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, the Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine and the Wake Forest University Health Services to be used for various COVID-19 research initiatives
- $6,000,000 for N.C. DHHS to distribute to the six food banks in the state
- a combined $143,040,000 to DHHS to support various programs and nonprofits related to COVID-19, expand public/private initiatives for COVID-19 testing, support behavioral health and crisis services, support various critical services (such as child care response, domestic violence shelters, etc.), and assist in serving children in foster care
- $1,800,000 to the Old North State Medical Society to target rural and African American communities with outreach, education and testing to address COVID-19 disparities
- $65,000,000 to the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation (NCHF) to award grants to critical access hospitals or non-critical access rural hospitals to offset COVID-19 costs
- $15,000,000 to establish the COVID-19 Teaching Hospitals Relief Fund to be disbursed to the state’s five teaching hospitals
- $15,000,000 to establish the COVID-19 General Hospitals Relief Fund to be disbursed to qualifying hospitals to offset costs related to COVID-19
- $15,000,000 to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to address possible future supply chain impacts
- $5,000,000 to the Department of Commerce for its Visit North Carolina marketing campaign
- $125,000,000 for Golden LEAF to provide small business loan assistance
- $9,000,000 to the Department of Information Technology to enable funding for all qualifying Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Fund applications
H.B. 1043 also:
- provides Medicaid coverage for COVID-19 testing to uninsured individuals
- increases Medicaid provider rates by 5 percent
- authorizes the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) fund for $395,525,572 in fiscal year 2019-20 and $354,547,850 in fiscal year 2020-21 to address immediate child care needs
- directs funding for overdose medications for opioid treatment programs
Ultimately the coronavirus relief package approved by the N.C. General Assembly addresses a number of policy and funding needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and will take effect as soon as both S.B. 704 and H.B. 1043 receive signatures from Gov. Cooper.
While this first tranche of relief accomplishes quite a bit, both legislative chambers have indicated that the work is far from over. The House has already stated that it plans to continue the work of the Select Committee on COVID-19 to address the next phase of coronavirus response measures. Speaker Moore also advised members to expect skeleton sessions over the next two weeks, and plan to return to normal rules and order of the House the week of May 18 unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
Similarly, Senate leadership has alluded to plans to address the next phase of relief and return to Raleigh in about a month.
While the legislature has wrapped up its whirlwind five-day session for now, it shows no signs of slowing down in its efforts to provide relief to North Carolinians and get back to business as usual.