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N.C. Senate passes third COVID-19 relief bill focused on education

N.C. Senate passes third COVID-19 relief bill focused on education

The state Senate cleared by a 44-5 vote Wednesday a third COVID-19 relief program bill that would allocate $903.9 million in federal CARES funding.

The state House is expected to take up the bill at its 10 a.m. session today.

However, House Bill 1105 failed to gain the unanimous support of its two predecessors.

The bill's debate centered on the inclusion of two education-oriented elements and 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.

The bill would spend $440.54 million, or nearly half, of the CARES funding on providing households with a child ages 17 and under with a $335 "extra credit" check.

The $335 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.

"Parents are facing an unexpected financial burden from school closures," said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth. "Expenses like child care, supplemental learning materials, lost wages and more, are adding up."

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he didn't have any specific design on how parents and guardians would spend the check, saying it might go toward a babysitter and a night out.

"All I know is they need it. They deserve it," Berger said.

Opportunity Scholarship

Relaxing the eligibility requirements for the Opportunity Scholarship grant program drew the most intense debate on HB1105, considering it is a high-profile Republican education initiative.

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

If the bill is approved, 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.

"How can it be that in a society so focused on equality, it’s okay for a major political party to say making decisions about your child’s education is reserved only for the wealthy elite?" Berger said.

"School choice should not be a privilege available only to those who can afford it. Parental school choice is a right, and we will fund it."

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

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said that Republican legislative leaders "like to talk about saving for a rainy day, and we need to make it clear that for public school educators and parents, it's been raining for years."

"We need legislators to seriously address these pressing issues now to allow local school districts to plan for the rest of the school year."

Jobless claims

Republican leadership quickly shot down bill amendments that would have enhanced significantly the state's regular unemployment insurance benefits.

HB1105 contains a $50 a week increase in unemployment insurance benefits to North Carolinians through the end of the year. If the bill is passed, the $50 increase would begin to be payable starting next week.

However, the increase would affect only new claimants, and not those who have exhausted their 12 weeks of regular state benefits during the pandemic.

The legislation adds $87 million to the state's Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The fund began the pandemic with $3.85 billion and has between $2.9 billion to $3 billion left as of Wednesday.

The maximum weekly benefit amount has been $350 since July 2013, when a GOP super-majority lowered it from $535 as part of its strategy for paying off a $2.8 billion debt to the U.S. Labor and Treasury departments.

The average approved North Carolina UI claimant currently receives $278 a week. The extra $50 a week would boost the payment by 18%.

The state provides currently a maximum of 12 weeks of regular UI benefits — tied for lowest in the country with Florida.

Cooper said Aug. 21 he prefers expanding the weekly benefit amount to $500 and the number of regular benefit weeks from 12 to 24.

An amendment submitted by Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, would have set a $500 weekly maximum and 26 benefit weeks — the latter the same as 44 other states.

Right after Nickel explained the amendment, it was squashed by Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, and Senate deputy president pro tem, who asked that the bill be tabled.

Medicaid expansion

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, made the latest of impassioned Democratic legislator pleas to expand the state Medicaid program to between 450,000 and 650,000 North Carolinians. Medicaid currently covers 2.2 million North Carolinians.

Cooper vetoed the Republican-sponsored fiscal 2019-21 state budget bill in large part because it lacked any form of Medicaid expansion and did not provide the level of public school teacher raises that he sought.

North Carolina is one of just 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid, with the list also including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Jackson's amendment contained the typical expansion language, as well as removing the 2013 law that prohibits the governor from acting to expand without legislative approval.

Just like the state UI benefits amendment, Hise moved quickly to table the amendment.

Jackson responded by questioning Republican senators' public-health priorities during both the pandemic. Berger is a fierce opponent of even considering any expansion legislation, even a bill sponsored by Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth.

Jackson cited Republican legislators' touting of using tens of millions of dollars of federal CARES Act funding on public-health issues, "when billions of our taxpayer monies are available and all you have to do is take it."

Because North Carolina law does not allow for voter referendums, many health care analysts and economists say the state will expand Medicaid only through a Democratic majority in the General Assembly and re-electing Cooper.

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@rcraverWSJ

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