Happy Labor Day!
Governor Cooper signaled he intends to sign into law the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 ( HB 1105 ) passed by the state General Assembly before they adjourned the final special session on Thursday. The spending bill uses the remainder of the federal CARES Act money that North Carolina must allocate by Dec. 30. It provides an automatic grant of $335 to parents who filed taxes to help them offset COVID-19-related educational expenses and allows those who didn’t file to apply for the grant. The bill also provides additional school enrollment funding, support for high speed internet access and disaster relief, and an additional $50 per week for state unemployment checks. While the governor emphasized the critical need for pandemic support, he also said that “legislators should have done more to expand Medicaid, support small businesses, pay our educators, assist with rent and utilities relief and further help unemployed North Carolinians.”
Restaurant and lodging industry leaders expressed disappointment that a Job Retention Grant program for small business, included in the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, will not be available to businesses that laid off more than 10% of workers from March through May. Additionally, any business that received a loan from either state or federal recovery programs are not eligible for the grant program. Lynn Minges, who leads the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, said that businesses forced to shut down and unable to take on more debt may not survive.
An amendment to the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 proposed by Sen. Kirk deViere, D-Cumberland would have directed funding to programs to help shuttered businesses pay rent, mortgages, and other fixed costs, and to help what are classified as Historically Underutilized Businesses, which include minority-owned businesses. The amendment was tabled by the Senate along party lines, preventing it from being considered for inclusion in the final bill.
The state unemployment office began implementing a federal program that will boost unemployment benefits by $300 a week for a total of 3 weeks. The program was initiated in August, and the payments will be retroactive. To receive the federal supplement, a worker must qualify for at least $100 a week in state benefits and be out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In response to stabilizing COVID-19 hospitalization and infection trends, Governor Cooper lifted reopening restrictions for some businesses and modified rules for social gatherings beginning Friday, September 4. In Phase 2.5 of the governor’s three-part recovery plan, playgrounds, museums, gyms, bowling alleys and other recreational facilities may reopen with varying operating capacity limits. Mass gathering limits will be increased to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors, but masks will be required in public places for anyone age 5 and older. In addition, state DHHS secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen issued an order permitting resumption of outdoor visits at nursing homes. Bars, amusement parks, and movie theaters remain closed until at least Oct. 2.
A three-judge NC Superior Court panel ruled that felons on probation or parole cannot be denied the right to vote if the only reason they remain under supervision is a failure to pay court costs and fees. The current North Carolina felon disenfranchisement laws prohibit felons from voting until their entire sentence, including probation or parole, is complete. The 2-1 court ruling held that including payment of fees in this definition amounted to a poll tax, saying “… our Constitution is clear: no property qualification shall affect the right to vote.” The court enjoined the state from enforcing that part of the law but did not restore voting rights to those on probation for other reasons.
A state audit of online courses designed to provide advanced and honors courses to public school students found evidence of poor quality, plagiarism and copyright infringement. The courses, provided by state-run NCVirtual Public School, are available to students in districts that are not otherwise able to offer these advanced classes. The program is funded by the local public school districts and charter schools and administered by the state Department of Public Instruction. State Auditor Beth Wood presented the findings to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. State Board of Education officials and Superintendent of Public Education Mark Johnson accepted the audit findings but suggest changes are already in place to improve the system.
On Tuesday the judge overseeing the Leandro school funding case agreed to the action plan calling for additional monies to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide basic education to all children. Developed by the NC Board of Education, the Governor’s Office, the NC Department of Justice and plaintiffs in the case, the consent order calls for spending an additional $427 million for teacher pay raises, directing more money to students with the greatest needs, supporting students at risk of failing academically, and expanding early childhood education programs. Some Republican lawmakers voiced opposition to finding state money to implement the consent order.
Economic and Housing Policy
HB 807, a bill committing $18 million in state grants for the purpose of bringing a “sports championship employer” to North Carolina passed both chambers of the legislature with bipartisan support and was sent to Governor Cooper Thursday. The sport is not named, but Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, whose district includes the Pinehurst golf resort, said the group involved would announce plans in the coming week.
On Thursday abortion rights advocates and providers filed a case in state superior court asserting that components of North Carolina’s long-standing abortion restrictions violate civil rights provided under the state constitution. Litigants claim these restrictions are medically unnecessary, impose discriminatory costs and disproportionately affect rural communities and communities of color. Defendants named in the case include leaders of the state General Assembly as well as the state's attorney general and local district attorneys, who have the authority to prosecute violations of state restrictions.