House, Senate work on COVID-19 bills

A limited number of lawmakers gather on the House floor as the North Carolina General Assembly opens a new session amid the current COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — Differences between House and Senate funding priorities became clearer as North Carolina legislators on Wednesday advanced competing COVID-19 emergency packages.

The full Senate approved its coronavirus legislation unanimously after tacking on another $131 million in federal funds that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration asked for, Senate leader Phil Berger said. The House was expected to debate and vote Thursday on its own plan.

House leaders’ proposal distributes or designates roughly $375 million more overall in coronavirus relief funds that Congress has sent to North Carolina compared to the Senate’s proposal. Much of the difference comes through additional aid for the K-12 public schools and university research. Legislators from both chambers still will have to negotiate to close that gap and get a final measure to Cooper’s desk, possibly by Friday. Legislative leaders say their goal was to wrap up by the end of this week.

The Senate is taking a guarded approach when it comes to earmarking federal dollars compared to the House. Senate leaders are worried about the state’s fragile budget picture since the economic downturn has dried up revenues. Federal money could be allowed later to fill budget shortfalls.
“We’re trying to be as cautious as we can while taking care of what we know are immediate needs,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican and a chief budget-writer. “Our budget in the next couple of years is going to be difficult.”
Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) issued a joint statement regarding the Senate’s bill which passed by a 48-0 margin:

“Today’s consensus vote is the product of weeks of good-faith negotiations. It is the first step in what will be a lengthy road to recovery, and we appreciate the positive, collaborative spirit in which all sides approached this. We’ve come together to fund immediate needs, support research, and lift up those hit hardest by the virus’s economic impact.”

North Carolina’s share from the largest coronavirus rescue package is more than $3.5 billion. The House package would distribute $1.7 billion of this money, while the amended Senate package is more than $1.3 billion. These totals don’t include more than $1.2 billion in grants from another federal relief law going to North Carolina and identified in the competing legislation.

House Speaker Tim Moore said many of the differences between the House and the Senate, both controlled by Republicans, are more about spending levels, rather than disagreements about the most pressing demands. While the House wants to give $75 million to the Golden LEAF Foundation to fund low-cost small business loans, the Senate would provide $125 million.

But policy differences remained as well. The House would expand Medicaid temporarily so people making up to twice the poverty rate can be treated for coronavirus-related maladies. The Senate proposal doesn’t have that. Berger has said that spending going directly to medical providers will help treat the uninsured.

The House and Senate will both be back to work at the General Assembly today.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.