North Carolina governor signs $1.6 billion COVID-19 bills
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed a pair of bills on Monday which will provide a $1.6 billion infusion for schools, hospitals, local governments and researchers battling the coronavirus pandemic. While the Republican-dominated General Assembly and Democratic governor have been at odds since Cooper took office in 2017, the bipartisan measures were approved unanimously by the House and Senate last Saturday. Cooper appeared with members of both parties, including Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, on a crowded stage that didn’t allow for social distancing.
As Cooper signed the legislation, state health officials reported 11,848 laboratory-confirmed cases and 430 deaths, across all but one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
“This is a time that North Carolina has truly come together to fight this disease,” Cooper said. “I appreciate these leaders reaching consensus with each other and our office to move quickly so that we can test and trace this disease, while we also get relief to people and businesses that need it.”
Berger said he thinks the legislation “gets us on the right path.” Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue said the bipartisan cooperation “shows us what we can do when we put people above politics.”
The bills provide $85 million for five universities for COVID-19 research and treatment; $95 million to help rural and teaching hospitals; $50 million to purchase personal protective equipment; and $25 million to expand virus testing and tracing. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services can’t access the $25 million, however, unless it releases additional data about COVID-19 testing and health conditions of patients.
There’s also $125 million to expand a low-cost small-business loan fund run by the Golden LEAF Foundation; $35 million to purchase computers for students and staff in K-12 public schools, which have been closed since March; $75 million to sustain school nutrition programs; and $44 million in part for online summer school for the University of North Carolina system and to sanitize its campuses.
The state Department of Transportation also would get $300 million, but only if the federal government allows spending for that purpose. Another $150 million would be distributed immediately to local governments.
The bill also includes other pandemic responses: Car inspections and license renewals are delayed until August, interest accrued on income tax bills after April 15 is eliminated and marriage licenses and notarizations can be carried out remotely for awhile. The K-12 schools will reopen a week earlier this August.
Deleted was a Senate provision to raise the maximum weekly state unemployment benefit from $350 to $400 once federal benefits are exhausted, and a House provision to let still-shuttered restaurants sell take-out mixed drinks.
In advance of the bill signings, the N.C. Department of Commerce reported it has paid more than 444,000 claims totaling $1.2 billion. Between March 15 and May 3, the agency saw 1,008,641 claims filed. Approximately 45,000 claims were over the weekend, the department said.
After Cooper signed the bills, he merged tradition with a concession to the caution demanded by the outbreak.
“We have two new laws that will help the people of North Carolina that this leadership has come together with consensus to move our state forward,” Cooper said. “I’ve got a pen for each of them after we wipe it down with disinfectant.”