The NC Senate unanimously passed a bill allowing some NC cities to delay municipal elections if redistricting of new population-based voting districts can’t be completed in time for the 2021 elections. Filing for these elections is scheduled for July, but the federal census data needed for determining voting districts won’t be available to states until mid-August. Under SB 722, cities with affected elections would have until November 2021 to complete redistricting and would be able to postpone the start of the 2021 municipal elections cycle from July to at least early December without getting NC General Assembly approval. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.
Gov. Cooper announced two new funding initiatives to help NC students finance postsecondary education as the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s share of the federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund will provide $51.4 million in new funding for costs and programs at state universities and community colleges. The Longleaf Commitment program will provide an additional $31.5 million specifically aimed at providing federal and state grants to low- and middle-income families to help cover community college costs.
On Friday, 37 faculty members at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media issued a written statement condemning the UNC Board of Trustees for failing to review the candidacy of Nikole Hannah-Jones for a tenured appointment to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The statement called the Board’s inaction, “a blatant disregard for time-honored tenure procedure and for the university and Board of Trustees’ endorsed values of diversity, equity and inclusion.” The Knight Foundation has urged approval of Hannah-Jones’s appointment with tenure, and the head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major source of support for the university, has joined other student, faculty, and alumni groups in urging approval. The Board of Trustees apparently decided not to hold a vote on Hannah-Jones’s appointment after behind-the-scenes opposition, including from Walter Hussman, a major donor to the journalism school.
On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved a contract with Amplify Education, Inc., to be the single vendor providing a K-3 reading assessment tool for the state’s public schools. The decision ended a lengthy controversy created when the former state school superintendent, Mark Johnson, unilaterally selected another company to provide the service. North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law requires the state to have a K-3 reading diagnostic mechanism to enable collection of comprehensive statewide data. Amplify’s assessment tool comes as North Carolina moves to using phonics as the basis for teaching reading to young children, an approach that has both supporters and critics.
Economic and Housing Policy
The NC Senate passed a bill that would provide a $1,500 bonus to people currently receiving unemployment benefits if they take a job. The bill now goes back to the NC House. The plan defined by HB 128 may require congressional approval to use federal unemployment funds.
The NC House voted to use federal American Rescue Act money to subsidize childcare for people going back to work as part of a larger bill that would remove North Carolina from a federal program that pays $300 per week to people who lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. House Speaker Tim Moore asked for a unanimous vote for the entirety of SB 116. Not all Democrats agreed, arguing that unemployment rates are already going down in the state, which suggests that the $300 per week subsidy is not incentivizing people to avoid going back to work. The bill passed 71-36 and now goes back to the Senate.
NC House and Senate Republicans, who hold a majority in the legislature, have not yet agreed on spending totals for the state budget. While the state Senate continues debating a budget to pass to the House, state House leaders – bucking tradition - are pushing ahead with writing their own budget for 2021-22. A comprehensive state budget has not been passed since 2018. If the legislature can’t agree this year, North Carolina will continue to function at its current level of spending, passing targeted spending bills with year-to-year adjustments as needed.
Senate Republicans proposed additional tax cuts for both individuals and corporations as they began the process of creating their proposals for the state budget. Under the Senate Republicans’ plan, the individual income tax rate would be reduced from 5.25% to 4.99%, standard deductions would increase by approximately 18.5%, and corporate income tax would be phased out over five years starting in 2024. Republicans remain convinced that these across-the-board tax cuts will boost the North Carolina economy, but Gov. Cooper and Democrats favor more targeted tax cuts focused on middle- and lower-income groups and more funding for schools, child care and other community needs. SB 112 is the senate committee replacement for HB 334 and would need to pass several more senate committees before being considered by the full Senate.
On Wednesday, a bill aimed at improving broadband access in less developed, rural areas of North Carolina passed the NC House unanimously. HB 947 would use $750 million in federal pandemic relief funds to close “broadband gaps” in underserved areas. The bill now moves to the NC Senate.
On Thursday, Republican state senators voted not to confirm Dionne Delli-Gatti’s appointment as secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, a position she has held since February while waiting for full confirmation hearings. She would have been the first woman to hold the secretaryship and is the first cabinet secretary nominee the NC Senate has rejected during Gov. Cooper’s time in office. Republicans claimed that Delli-Gatti lacked knowledge about natural gas and gas pipeline issues, but she had the support not only of Senate Democrats but also of key state energy providers including Duke Power and Dominion Power. It is not clear why Republicans decided to remove her from the position. Immediately after the Senate’s party-line vote, Gov. Cooper named Delli-Gatti to head the state’s clean energy effort, where she will focus on “administrative efforts… including negotiating energy legislation.”
HB 500, Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act of 2021, would provide funds to improve levees and other disaster mitigation projects primarily in eastern and southeastern North Carolina. The bill, which has bipartisan support, has been referred to the House Committee on Appropriations.
Gun Violence Prevention
SB 43, which would allow concealed carry permit holders to carry a gun when attending religious services held on school property when school is not in session or being used for school activities, was approved by a NC House judiciary committee.
Women’s and LGBTQ Rights
NC Senate GOP leaders are expected to hold a floor vote this week on a bill that would require a doctor providing an abortion to provide state health officials “with a statement by the physician confirming that the woman did not tell the physician and the physician has reason to believe that the woman did not seek the abortion because of the unborn child's actual or presumed race or sex or the presence or presumed presence of Down syndrome." HB 453 is supported by anti-choice proponents and some Down syndrome advocates but is opposed by medical groups, prominent disability rights advocates in the state, and by the ACLU. If approved by the Senate, the bill would go to Gov. Cooper, who has vetoed other abortion bills in in the past.