COVID-19, Economy Top Legislators’ Agenda

The North Carolina Legislative Building. Access to the legislative complex for the brief session that begins Tuesday is restricted to staff, legislators and credentialed media. Photo: Mark Hibbs

Copublished with Carolina Public Press

The North Carolina General Assembly returns this week with a focus on pressing needs like protective supplies for medical workers and more aid to deal with coronavirus testing and infections, but also with an eye on the future amid a rapidly heating debate over when and how to phase out business shutdowns and stay-at-home requirements.

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper announced an extension of his main stay-at-home requirement until May 8, along with what he called a “roadmap” on easing restrictions later in May and June, should certain health goals be met.

“North Carolina cannot stay at home indefinitely,” Cooper said at a Thursday press briefing, but he said any decision to ease restrictions would have to be based on sound science. On Friday, he also announced that schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year.

“North Carolina cannot stay at home indefinitely.”

— Gov. Roy Cooper

At the same briefing, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the state appears to be flattening the curve in terms of slowing the increase in cases, but that the current restrictions are still needed. She outlined a testing, tracing and trends plan to more than double the amount of testing each day and the number of people doing contract tracing. The trends the state will track focus on cases and hospitalizations and capacity of the state’s health care providers, including protective gear, to stay ahead of the curve, she said.

Thanks to the response to closures and social distancing efforts “North Carolina is in a very good place,” Cohen said. “We have flattened the curve, but we’re not there yet.”

“We’re staring down a multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall, which negatively impacts our ability to fund the vetoed budget.”

— Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

The governor’s announcement sets the stage for a session that is likely to feature strong approval for relief bills along with a substantial airing of disagreements with the administration over when to and what should reopen.

What it won’t feature is a replay of tensions from last year over Cooper’s budget veto, an area of vehement disagreement between the governor and legislative leaders.

On Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, announced the session would focus on the relief legislation and that the long-running battle over the budget had been effectively ended by the pandemic.

“Our state’s financial outlook is in a vastly different place than it was before this pandemic hit. Because of that, we will not be reconsidering the veto of the state budget this year,” Berger said. “We’re staring down a multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall, which negatively impacts our ability to fund the vetoed budget.”

Tourism questions raised

While the governor has received mostly broad support on his handling of the crisis from legislators, going into this week’s session some who represent areas of the state dependent on tourism said they’re worried that the administration is being overly cautious and should be willing to loosen restrictions in areas where infection rates are low.

In a Monday morning teleconference on the upcoming session sponsored by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, called on the governor to give some areas flexibility in opening back up.

“I’d really like to see the governor give consideration to opening up those who have very few positives.”

— Rep. Pat McElraft

McElraft said she understands keeping restrictions in place in areas where there are a lot of positive tests like Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford counties, but she would like to see some leeway in making decisions to open back up for counties with fewer cases.

“I’d really like to see the governor give consideration to opening up those who have very few positives,” she said.

On the other end of the state, Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, said reopening bars and restaurants is a critical part of serving the tourist trade. Downtowns in his district are “ghost towns,” he said, and many businesses won’t survive a prolonged shutdown.

Edwards said the governor’s plan is too vague and that businesses need greater certainty about when they could reopen.

“It’s unfortunate to say that they’re going to be businesses that are not going to make it, but let’s be real. This is a devastating crisis and some folks are not going to survive.”

Slate of bills being readied

An array of bills developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be read in Tuesday morning and fast-tracked to passage as early as Wednesday.

The legislature already scheduled a return to Raleigh this week for the even-year short session, which is typically set up to make second-year adjustments in the state’s biennial budget cycle. This year, however, is far from typical and the legislature is likely to deal with only a handful of bills before adjourning again to a date later in the summer.

During the brief session, the legislative complex will be closed to the public. Only staff, legislators and credentialed media will be allowed in and everyone will have their temperature checked at the door. The legislature will also have a video livestream available for most committee meetings and the House floor sessions.

Instead of the usual hearings ahead of the short session, a House Select Committee on COVID-19 held two months of meetings via teleconference to develop legislation in the areas of health care, education, economic support and state government operations. Working groups in the four subject areas have developed legislation to deal with policy changes as well as technical changes and workarounds to requirements in state law.

The legislature is also working on an overall spending plan to deal with the impact to both the public and private sector. Part of that plan is how to direct an estimated $2.2 billion in aid sent to the state in the initial federal response. Other sources will be $1.8 billion in the state’s rainy day fund and about $2 billion unspent from last year’s budget.

Cooper released his spending request last week, asking for about $1.4 billion in appropriations

Among the items on the governor’s list are $243 million for school equipment and to get ready for the next school year; $300 million for local governments; and $40 million to cover lost revenue at state cultural sites and aquariums and to cover positions at the Department of Environmental Quality that are paid for with regulatory fees.

The state budget office expects fee collections to slow down considerably until the economy recovers.

It will be one of the many budget sinkholes state and local governments will have to deal with going forward, everything from plunging gas taxes, which fund state transportation projects, to occupancy and meals taxes that pay for local parks, stadiums and beaches.

Further complicating the revenue picture is federal tax extension, which automatically moved the state’s April 15 tax deadline to July 15. The result shifts as much as $2 billion in revenue into the next year fiscal year. Among the policy changes Cooper is requesting the authority to use the rainy day fund for short term funds for cash-strapped parts of state government.

About the Author

Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist based in the Triangle. In addition to Coastal Review Online, he covers the legislature and state government for Carolina Public Press and The Washington Post. He can be reached at kirkrossreport@gmail.com.