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COVID-19 relief bill clears General Assembly

COVID-19 relief bill clears General Assembly

The third round of COVID-19 relief legislation cleared the N.C. General Assembly on Thursday, allocating $903.9 million in federal funding.

The House passed House Bill 1105 by a 104-10 margin. The bill goes to Gov. Roy Cooper, who has 10 days to sign or veto the bill or let it become law without his signature.

There were no amendments submitted on the House floor. By comparison, the Senate had 12 amendments submitted, including six approved and four tabled by Republican legislative leadership.

Any House changes to HB1105 would have required sending it back to the Senate for its approval.

Unless there is additional federal CARES funding sent to the state, it is expected to be the final phase of the 2019-20 session. The governor can call the legislature back into session, as well as three-fifths of the members in both chambers.

Cooper spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said in a statement that "the governor is pleased that legislators followed his recommendations to maintain funding for school enrollment and invested in important areas like broadband, but they could have done much more to help North Carolinians in need.

"Most important, the bill should have expanded Medicaid to give 600,000 working people health care, and done more for struggling small businesses and unemployed people as the governor’s budget recommended.

"Legislators are leaving funds on the table and people in the lurch in a time of great crisis. The governor will continue to review the bill," MacMillan said.

Similar to the Senate debate Wednesday, House Republicans focused on two education-oriented elements: the $335 tax credit for most households with at least one child ages 17 and under; and expanding eligibility for the controversial Opportunity Scholarship program for K-12 students that is a high-profile Republican priority.

"This is a historic day of promises kept for North Carolinians, the culmination of a decade of state government reform by this Republican General Assembly that allows us to continue investing in recovery for all our citizens today," said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

Meanwhile, House Democrats lamented the exclusion of expanding the state's Medicaid program and enhancing the state's regular unemployment insurance benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying recession.

"There is a lot of good in this bill, but it falls short in a number of key areas," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. 

Extra credit check

The bill spends $440.54 million, or nearly half, of the CARES funding toward the $335 "extra credit" check.

The check would be issued Dec. 15 to parents and guardians who file a 2019 state tax return by Oct. 15. Those who don't file taxes can apply for a grant.

The check is projected to go to 1.2 million households affecting a combined 2 million children. The check is considered as taxable federal income.

House Democrats cited that about 25% of those checks will go to two-parent households making up to $400,000 annually and one-parent households making up to $200,000 annually.

The Opportunity Scholarship grant program uses taxpayer funds to assist low- and middle-income students in attending K-12 private schools.

The program "no longer would cap the amount of funds that could be used for students entering kindergarten and first grade, and (would) change the income eligibility threshold to broaden who may participate in the program."

The new eligibility standards would go into effect March 15.

Bill sponsors tied the program to in-class learning during the pandemic, saying parents should have the choice if they believe classroom instruction is better for their child's educational development.

Cooper said in his 2020-21 budget proposal that he would shift $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program toward other state funding needs.

Small business aid

The bill adds $45.5 million to the Job Retention Grant program for a total of $60.5 million. Applicants can request up to $250,000.

However, to qualify the small businesses must have kept 90% of their employees on their payroll from mid-March through May 31.

Senate Democrats submitted an amendment that would shift up to $30 million in relief funds toward small business grants to help pay for rent, mortgages and other facility costs. The amendment was tabled by Republican leadership.

Democrats said small business owners have told them they are not interested in another loan program because they want to avoid adding more debt.

Moore and Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and a lead House budget writer, said those small businesses would be better served by Cooper reopening the state's economy beyond the Phase 2.5 restrictions that take effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

Moore cited Cooper's veto of two bills that would allowed reopening of certain elements of the economy, including private bars and clubs. Cooper vetoed the bills in part because they contained language that would have required Council of State approval of current and future executive orders with statewide implications.

All six GOP of the 10 council members have said they want to fully reopen the state’s businesses sooner than Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, have planned.

"These small business families are desperate for the opportunity to earn revenue to care for their children and to pay their bills," Moore said.

"It is past time the governor met with these business leaders to make a plan for their reopening, get their employees back to work, and ensure North Carolina communities do not have vacant real estate because the administration has no solutions for the inevitable result of its economic closures."

A group of small business owners, including bars, held a rally outside the General Assembly on Thursday.

Lynn Minges, president and chief executive of N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association, tweeted Thursday that "the small business grant program in HB1105 does nothing to help restaurants, bars, gyms, etc., that were forced to close and lay off staff."

"Can't we remove the 90% employee retention requirement for JUST THOSE BUSINESSES? No help for those with the most need."

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@rcraverWSJ

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