A bill to allocate $1.7 billion the state received last year as part of the federal pandemic relief CARES Act unanimously passed both state legislative chambers and will now go to Gov. Cooper. HB196 provides funds for virus testing and prevention and includes support for public universities and for child-care assistance. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to add state funding to pay bonuses to K-12 and college employees and to increase unemployment benefits.
On March 3 COVID-19 vaccines were made available to a large group of frontline essential workers in North Carolina, including firefighters, law enforcement, grocery store workers, migrant farmers, restaurant workers, postal workers, clergy and others. An increasing vaccine supply, including the recently approved Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot, has expedited the state’s vaccine timeline. It is expected that people with underlying medical conditions will be able to make vaccine appointments starting March 24.
North Carolina state and local officials agree that at least 62 municipalities in 33 counties will have to delay 2021 municipal elections because they must first redistrict based on data from the US Census Bureau, which is delayed. However, there is debate about whether to delay elections across all municipalities in the state or to target changes to only those local governments that rely on districts or wards for candidate filing or electing candidates. The census delays will also impact county and state primaries in 2022. Any decision will raise both practical and constitutional questions, and legislative leaders from both parties have not yet committed to any action.
Both the NC House and Senate approved versions of bills that would allow increased capacity at both indoor and outdoor school events. Governor Cooper’s recent executive order had increased capacity at all outdoor events to 30% and at indoor events to 15%. HB 128 would allow event capacity at high school, community college and UNC campuses to no less than 30% and no greater than 50%. HB118 would increase outdoor high school sports event capacity up to 50%, but because it is specific to 14 counties, it is considered a local bill and does not require the governor’s approval. The Senate has approved similar bills and the two chambers will formulate a final version of one or both bills.
On Monday the NC Senate failed by one vote to override Gov. Cooper’s veto of a bill (SB37) that would require all NC public school districts to offer some form of in-person learning. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ben Clark (D-Cumberland, Hoke) was absent for the vote. On Wednesday Senate leadership announced that, given Sen. Clark’s excused absence, they would vote on a motion to reconsider the override, and that if that motion passed, they would take another override vote, waiting at least 24 hours as required by Senate rules. While the Governor and the legislature agree in principle about in-person instruction, Gov. Cooper wants the bill to give local districts more control over reopening decisions and wants middle and high schools to more closely adhere to social distancing guidelines. He also wants the legislature to allow his administration to shut schools down if COVID-19 trends worsen.
Two days after the NC Senate failed to override the governor’s veto of SB 37, nearly two dozen Senate Democrats who had opposed the bill asked the State Board of Education to help convince school districts to offer an in-person learning option incorporating NCDHHS and CDC guidelines on social distancing and allowing local and state health officials to change reopening plans “if warranted,” as recommended by Gov. Cooper.
On Thursday, the State Board of Education adopted a resolution stating that all school districts “should” provide students with an in-person learning option, following new NCDHHS guidance on restricting remote learning options to “higher-risk students and families opting for remote learning.” State School Superintendent Catherine Truitt also pressed the NCDHHS to share benchmarks that would need to be achieved in order for older students to attend school five days a week.
Economic and Housing Policy
Gov. Cooper issued an executive order that would require people who initially file for unemployment benefits on or after March 14 to show evidence they are looking for work. The requirement – which will not affect persons already receiving benefits - is not new but was waived at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Republican legislators have proposed two bills, SB114 and HB107, both of which reinstate a work search requirement. While there is bipartisan agreement about the work search requirement, the governor faces opposition from Republicans to his call for increasing maximum weekly unemployment benefits from $350 to $500.
The $1.7 billion pandemic relief package (HB 196) passed by the state legislature imposes new spending restrictions on a federally funded rental assistance program that the state has been struggling to implement since December. Republican lawmakers responsible for the new rules, which impose spending caps for each county and revise how the program can calculate and pay rental assistance, say the changes will ensure equity, but the governor and program administrator express concern the new rules will further delay implementation.
Health Care Policy
Medicaid recipients who are under court-order to get substance abuse or mental health treatment can temporarily lose child custody. A bill that would make it easier to keep these parents in the Medicaid program is advancing in the state Senate. SB 93 has bipartisan support and was approved unanimously by the Senate Health Care Committee.
NC legislators Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Wake), Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg), and Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) have introduced the RemoveBarriers/Gain Access to Abortion Act (“RBG Act”) in their respective legislative chambers. HB188 and SB167 would expand access to reproductive health care in North Carolina by repealing the counseling and 72-hour delay requirement, expanding the pool of professionals allowed to perform abortions, repealing the ban on using telemedicine in abortions and repealing insurance and funding bans on abortion coverage from Medicaid and other health care plans.
Gun Violence Prevention
A bill to permit people to carry concealed handguns at religious services held on school property passed the NC Senate. Current law allows concealed-carry at religious services except where schools operate on the property. SB 43, Protect Religious Meeting Places, would not allow concealed carry when school or extracurricular activities are in session. Proponents of the bill suggest concealed carry will protect churchgoers in an active-shooter situation, but opponents argue the law puts children at greater risk from accidental shootings and negatively impacts efforts to prevent gun violence at all schools. All Republican and three Democratic senators voted in favor of the bill.
NC Department of Public Safety officials clarified their statements after seeming to suggest that only nonviolent offenders would be considered for early prison release under last week’s court agreement. That settlement is aimed at correcting inadequacy in protecting incarcerated people from COVID-19 and includes reducing the prison population by 3,500 inmates over the next 6 months. The clarification reiterates that all 3,500 people selected for early release are already slated to be released in 2021. Of these, some have received early release credits for model behavior, and some may have committed “crimes against persons,” a category that includes violent crimes.