RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The General Assembly unanimously passed a $1.5 billion COVID-19 relief package Saturday in what’s being described as the “initial response” to the crisis.
“I applaud the General Assembly for working quickly to pass legislation to fight COVID-19 in North Carolina. These bills were developed collaboratively, and although it’s just a first step, they are the product of a consensus approach that I hope can continue. I will be reviewing them closely and look forward to taking action on them soon,” said Gov Cooper.
The bills passed Saturday assign a portion of the $3.5 billion that’s been allocated to North Carolina so far by the federal government. The legislation heads to Gov. Roy Cooper (D) for his signature.
“And I think North Carolina is truly a model of how you should respond to something like this. I mean, 120 to zero vote,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R).
Lawmakers designated $50 million for personal protective equipment; $25 million for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and trend monitoring; and $75 million for school nutrition.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) noted the bills include $125 million for small businesses loans but pointed out applications for that funding already exceed that amount.
The legislative package also makes a variety of policy changes including: waiving end-of-year testing requirements at schools, allowing school to start a week earlier next year on Aug. 17, delaying tax payments and waiving interest owed on those delayed payments.
In the negotiations over the final legislation, several provisions got dropped.
The Senate had proposed increasing by $50 the maximum weekly unemployment payment that people can receive beginning in August. The current maximum is $350 per week.
The federal government is currently paying people an additional $600 per week. That ends in late July, which is when the Senate proposal would have kicked in.
Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) criticized the decision to remove it.
“That really is the most important provision for me personally to really help people right away who need a lifeline,” he said.
Speaker Moore said the issue wasn’t considered “time sensitive to deal with that just yet,” noting lawmakers would be back in a few weeks to pass another round of bills to deal with COVID-19.
“We really wanted to make sure that we would be in a good position to do that because you don’t want to start committing funds and then look back and realize you don’t have the funds there,” he said.
North Carolina’s unemployment insurance trust fund has about $4 billion in it.
The final bills also dropped a provision the House supported to allow restaurants to sell mixed alcoholic drinks with to-go orders.
“Restaurants especially are so hard hit. This is a big profit source for them. This would help so many restaurants stay afloat,” Sen. Nickel said.
On Friday when CBS17 asked about the matter, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said, “I don’t believe that it’s in the best interest of coming forward with a consensus bill to deal with the federal dollars that are coming into North Carolina to include an alcohol provision of that sort.”
Both chambers agreed to a limited expansion of Medicaid to cover testing for COVID-19. They cut a provision by the House to spend $40 million to also cover treatment for COVID-19. Senate leaders say funding the federal government already has sent to hospitals would help with treatment coverage.
In future bill, legislative leaders say they want to allocate more to the funding to help struggling state agencies such as the Department of Transportation, which already was dealing with financial problems before the crisis hit. The bills passed Saturday also include help for local government agencies. State lawmakers say they’re awaiting additional action by Congress to authorize to what extent the aid can go to local and state agencies.