Wednesday, 25 March 2020 17:23

House COVID-19 committee holds first meeting on economic relief

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House COVID-19 committee holds first meeting on economic relief RO file photo

RALEIGH — As unemployment numbers surge, N.C. lawmakers are exchanging ideas and working on ways to provide relief to suffering residents.

The economic working group of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 met virtually for the first time Wednesday, March 25, despite some significant hiccups with poor audio quality and occasional feedback.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, created the group to address challenges posed by the viral outbreak — from economic relief to health care needs.

Stabilizing small businesses, providing tax relief in the form of extensions, and extending deadlines for renewing licenses are just some ways lawmakers can help, Moore said.

The economic working group focused on three areas: federal responses and state implications, small business loans, and unemployment benefits.

North Carolina is in a good position to weather this storm due to smart budgeting practices, Moore told the group of lawmakers and fiscal experts.

North Carolina has $3.9 billion in the Unemployment Trust Fund, $74 million in the Disaster Relief Fund, $186 million in Medicaid contingency reserves, $2.2 billion in unappropriated balance, and $1.1 billion in savings reserve.

About 166,000 North Carolinians have applied for unemployment benefits, with some 145,000 of those related to COVID-19. The number is likely to grow as state and local governments implement restrictions on the economy to slow the spread of the virus.

Gov. Roy Cooper waived some requirements for unemployment benefits, including doing away with the one-week waiting period and the requirement to apply in person. Applicants won’t have to show they are looking for work, either.

One of the most important things lawmakers could do is allow for attached claims for unemployment insurance, Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said.

Now, employers can’t file a claim on behalf of an employee, though exemptions exist. Allowing employers to file claims on behalf of employees would be easier to administer, Jeremy Ray, with the legislative analysis division, told the working group.

A bill draft titled COVID-19 Response Act would codify some of the changes Cooper made with his executive order, as well as provide flexibility for attached claims. The bill draft also calls for eliminating the first quarter employer payroll tax.

Small businesses need help, too.

All 100 N.C. counties are under the Small Business Administration disaster declaration. The declaration allows for small businesses to apply for low-interest federal loans.

Another resource for small business is Golden LEAF’s Rapid Recovery Loan Program, which provides zero-interest loans for up to six months up to $50,000. The program is intended to bridge the gap while small businesses wait for federal assistance, said Madison Lahey, a fiscal analyst with the Fiscal Research Division.

The General Assembly isn’t scheduled to return until April 28, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial devastation it’s causing could call lawmakers back sooner than planned.

Some of the ideas floated during the working group meeting would require legislative action. Under current law, legislators can only vote in person.

“This is an unprecedented time in our state and it’s an unprecedented time here at the legislature,” Moore said.

The Healthcare Working Group will meet March 26 at 10 a.m., and the Education Working Group will meet at 1 p.m. While the House convenes its various working groups, the Senate is moving forward with its own plans.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake will hold a joint leadership call later this week to provide updates on their efforts and to discuss next steps.

“We will ask senators with interest or issue-area expertise in COVID-19 to reach out to their community to compile specific ideas for how we can respond,” Berger and Blue said in a joint news release. “We will continue to lean on every member of the Senate during this time to do outreach.”

The suggestions will be considered for a relief package to be addressed promptly when the General Assembly returns, Berger and Blue said.