Wednesday, 02 September 2020 12:06

House, Senate budget writers unveil $1 billion COVID-19 relief package

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House, Senate budget writers unveil $1 billion COVID-19 relief package RO file photo

RALEIGH — Republican lawmakers presented a $1 billion COVID-19 package during a Tuesday, Sept. 1, news conference. The proposal — which they plan to pass this week during a two-day session — sets the stage for a showdown with Gov. Roy Cooper, who earlier released his budget priorities. Those priorities differ drastically from Republicans’ plans.

The $1 billion plan is the third relief package from the General Assembly since the COVID-19 outbreak began. Lawmakers have until the end of December to spend federal dollars remaining from the CARES Act, between $552.4 million and $903.9 million.

The legislature’s package relies on federal dollars and savings the state has accumulated in recent years in the Rainy Day Fund and the Unemployment Trust Fund.

“This latest relief bill signals a shift from immediate needs, to long-term recovery efforts, including grants for small businesses, additional broadband investments, and supporting families that have been forced to move to online learning,” Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said during the news conference.

The package includes $5 million to support fall elections, including $3 million to boost every poll worker’s pay by $100. Thirty million dollars would expand broadband access.

The bill provides millions for grants to support child care centers and community-based organizations. More than $6 million would go toward eliminating waitlists for the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and the Education Savings Account Program.

Republican lawmakers’ proposal includes an across-the-board boost to unemployment benefits of $200 per month. Cooper wanted to increase unemployment from $350 a week for 12 weeks to $500 a week for 24 weeks.

Parents have faced unexpected costs because schools have shifted to full-time remote learning, Jackson said. The COVID-19 package includes a $440 million “Extra Credit Grants” program to help offset costs related to remote learning, he said.

Under the program, households with at least one dependent child would get a $325 tax credit. Parents who didn’t file taxes this year will have to apply to the program.

When asked why the package didn’t include a boost in teacher pay, Jackson said Cooper had vetoed three bills with teacher pay hikes, so the General Assembly instead decided to give money to parents with kids in school.

The bill increases the income eligibility level for families to enroll in the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“As many public schools chose to utilize remote learning, we saw parents clamoring for educational options, especially those from low- or middle-income families,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, said.

Cooper, at odds with Republicans, wants to cut the program altogether.

Last week, Cooper announced a $25 billion proposed budget — weeks after the fiscal year began July 1. The plan cuts $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program and diverts it to the public school system. Cooper’s proposal includes millions in one-time bonuses for teachers, principals, and non-certified school support staff, including janitors and cafeteria workers. It adds money to several education and teacher support programs.

Cooper said during an afternoon news conference that he has yet to review Republican lawmakers’ proposed COVID-19 relief package. Democratic lawmakers have and they aren’t happy.

“This budget provides nothing for teachers and nothing to expand access to affordable health care,” Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said in a news release. “Instead, it provides more taxpayer dollars for private schools and special interests.”

Jackson called the Republicans’ plan a band-aid that looks good in a press release but doesn’t solve the long-term effects of COVID-19.