Updated: Aug 31, 2020
This week, four separate UNC system universities moved to shift all undergraduate classes online. UNC Chapel Hill, NC State University, East Carolina University and UNC Charlotte have all seen increases in COVID-19 cases associated with students returning to campus. UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz expressed surprise at the “velocity and magnitude of the virus’ spread” and cited a failure of students to follow mitigation requirements off campus as a factor in the spread. NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson cited a spike in cases and in the number of students in quarantine and isolation, expressing disappointment with non-compliant off-campus gatherings. Newly appointed UNC System President Peter Hans says his office will continue to look at campus-specific needs across the UNC system, but medical experts, public health officials, campus town leaders and students have long been highly critical of the decision to reopen in-person classes.
On August 13, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest dropped his lawsuit against Gov. Cooper, in which he had claimed the governor did not have the right to issue executive orders related to mitigating COVID-19 without the concurrence of the council of state. He had asked the court to stay the governor’s powers until after the case was decided, but Wake County Superior Court Judge Jim Gale dismissed Forest’s argument as unlikely to succeed, and Forest declined to pursue the case further.
While absentee voting in the state has historically made up only a small percentage of total votes, State Board of Elections data shows requests for mail-in ballots - now numbering over 300,000 - are on track to exceed the combined number from North Carolina’s last two general elections. As of Thursday, 53% of requests have come from registered Democrats, 15% from Republicans, and about 30% from unaffiliated voters.
Attorney General Josh Stein joined attorneys general from five other states and the District of Columbia in a lawsuit seeking to block changes to the US Postal Service, asserting the changes will reduce the Postal Service’s ability to handle a projected substantial increase in mail-in ballots due to coronavirus concerns. Stein said the lawsuit “seeks to immediately reverse the agency’s actions and guarantee safeguards and standards for election mail.”
Economic and Housing Policy
North Carolina applied for and received funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would enable the state to pay $300 weekly unemployment benefits retroactively for the first three weeks of August. That represents half of the $600 benefit that expired July 31. Because the new funds are not paid through the existing unemployment systems and program, it remains uncertain as to when the payments will actually be made. NC Division of Employment Security officials have cited “additional burdens” imposed by the new program and the necessity to “reprogram its benefits system” to meet payment schedules.
According to the NC Division of Employment Security, while the overall number of North Carolinians employed increased in June, the July unemployment rate rose from 7.5% to 8.5%. This rate is more than double pre-coronavirus rates, but it is an improvement over the peak COVID-19 rate of 12.9% in April.
Health Care Policy
State Treasurer Dale Folwell announced new incentives, including reduced co-pays, to encourage State Health Plan participants to sign up with health care providers who agree to be part of the “Clear Pricing Project,” a new payment model. Folwell has claimed that the model, which ties health care providers’ reimbursement rates to Medicare rates, is a more transparent and less expensive insurance plan for state employees, teachers, state retirees and their families. Major hospital systems in the state have refused to join the plan, saying the reimbursement rates would force cuts in services. Duke University professor Ronnie Chatterji, Folwell’s Democratic opponent in the upcoming election, strongly criticized Folwell and the Clear Pricing Project, calling instead for expanded Medicaid and a reimbursement strategy based on data-driven assessment of hospital healthcare outcomes.
On Tuesday, Governor Cooper signed an executive order that will eliminate the requirement to disclose criminal convictions on applications for many North Carolina state jobs. As a result of this move to “ban the box,”applicants for many jobs will not be required to routinely report having a criminal conviction, an admission that often automatically excludes a person from consideration for a job even if the conviction is very old or unrelated to the position sought. Jobs related to security clearance or law enforcement are not included in the order. The order goes into effect Nov. 1.
A three-judge NC Superior Court panel heard arguments Wednesday challenging the state’s felon disenfranchisement law. The current law restores voting rights to those convicted of a felony after they have served their complete sentences, including prison and probation or parole; the lawsuit calls for the return of voting rights after a person is released from prison. Citing both a history of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and uneven application of judicial prerogative in sentencing, the plaintiffs argue the law will prevent around 60,000 North Carolinians from voting in November. Lawyers for the defendants, including the state of North Carolina and the Republican-led legislature, say changing the law is up to the legislature, not the courts. The panel of judges expects to issue a decision by September 4.