RALEIGH — The North Carolina legislature will reconvene briefly starting Wednesday to propose spending leftover federal COVID-19 relief funds to reach the pockets of parents, the unemployed and poll workers.
House and Senate Republicans have agreed on a package they want to send to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper this week to spend a little over $1 billion in coronavirus relief from Congress, a key senator confirmed on Tuesday.
The package would include sending $325 payments to households of an estimated 1.8 million children, budget-writer Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County told The Associated Press. The payments, which would cost $440 million and be sent by December, is designed to help cover additional expenses families are facing during the pandemic, such as child care and education materials while going to school online.
“The parents of children know best where that money is needed, as opposed to some one-size-fits-all of a program,” House Speaker Tim Moore said as payment details were being finalized. “This actually gets the money out there to these folks, where they can take care of their children.”
The proposal also will raise state unemployment benefits by $50 a week for all displaced workers through the end of the year, so the maximum benefit will reach $400.
There’s also money to boost pay for Election Day precinct workers by $100 as a way for county election boards to staff voting locations. Election officials are worried too many older adults won’t work polls this year because they’re at higher risk for contracting coronavirus.
The General Assembly had already earmarked well over $2 billion in federal relief dollars by late June, but the state’s $3.5 billion share of the federal coronavirus relief package must be spent by year’s end or it will be forfeited. The legislature last met in early July.
“Is this bill perfect? Absolutely not?” Jackson said. “But I feel like this is some of the best way we can spend this money and get it out the door without losing it.”
Cooper will have to decide whether to sign or veto the legislature’s package, which contains some elements of the governor’s own $978 million COVID-19 relief proposal last week. That includes ensuring K-12 school districts won’t lose revenue if enrollment drops and providing money for testing, tracing and personal protective equipment.
But Cooper didn’t have the direct payments to parents. And the GOP plan would expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which pays for taxpayer-funded scholarships for children to attend K-12 private schools. That’s a program Cooper and his education allies strongly oppose.
While a Cooper veto could withstand an override vote if all Democrats support him, a stalemate risks incumbents from both parties if the federal money isn’t spent. Cooper and all 170 legislative seats are on the November ballot.
Republicans also won’t consider Cooper’s proposal to spend $559 million more from state government revenues. The spending would have included bonuses of $1,000 to $2,000 for public education workers, $50 million for programs for at-risk public school students and $86 million to match federal disaster funds for recent hurricanes and the western North Carolina earthquake.
“We have to rise to the occasion of this pandemic response now and focus on ways to emerge from this crisis stronger than before,” Cooper said last week in pitching his plan.
But Republicans said there’s too much fiscal uncertainty related to the pandemic to spend unanticipated tax collections from the previous year now, like Cooper proposes.
“While it would always be nice just to go in and spend money on everything … we don’t know what what the fall is going to do with this virus,” Moore said.
GOP leaders said they’ll have little else on their agenda before leaving Thursday, save for legislation that locates a little money to recruit an unnamed company to the state.
The Legislative Building will remain open to the public during the session but stick to a reduced capacity to encourage social distancing.
Visitors and staff will receive body temperature readings using new thermal imaging technology installed at entrances last week. People with high temperatures won’t be allowed to enter the building. Lawmakers also had access to COVID-19 testing before Wednesday’s opening.