Legislative News by Nelda Holder –
Showing straightforward support for aiding the people of the state, the NC General Assembly passed both a massive spending bill and a nuts-and-bolts “get-’er-done” bill on May 2. Both votes were unanimous, and Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bills into law on May 4.
North Carolina received roughly $3.5 billion from the US Congress through the Coronavirus Relief Reserve package that passed several weeks ago, aimed at mitigating the impact of COVID-19 in the states. In turn, states are required to specify the financial allocation and management of the Coronavirus Relief Reserve funds. A 25-page bill (HB 1043) now spells out funding distribution within this state, and the 70-page COVID-19 Recovery Act (SB 704) sets up multiple temporary changes to state law necessitated by the COVID-19 health crisis.
On the financial side of the COVID-19 battle, there is first of all the rule that the federal funds received may not be used for revenue replacement. The purpose of the funding is to provide for the public health and economic well-being of the state. The money is to be held in a Coronavirus Relief Reserve in the General Fund and transferred by the state controller to the Coronavirus Relief Fund as needed to meet the legislative appropriations.
The bill includes pages of allocations affecting education (K-12 and universities and community colleges), health services, government (state and local) services, nutrition and food assistance programs, small business loan assistance, expansion of Medicaid coverage, funds for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, tracking and analysis of trends, personal protective equipment, drug and vaccine research, and expansion of broadband access.
There is also assistance to NCDOT for partial replacement of funds lost from gas tax revenue collapse (to avoid dramatic cost overruns on delayed projects), and an allotment for tourism research and marketing in the state—a multibillion-dollar tax generator in our normal economy.
Adding Nuts-and-Bolts Relief
The weighty COVID-19 Recover Act (SB 704) takes on a myriad of complications for abiding by state law during a pandemic. One big example is the 14-page section of changes dealing with the closure of schools for in-person instruction, looking toward the necessity of future online learning. There are also multiple pages of changes in healthcare legalities.
Other specifics in the bill provide for notarization by remote access; extension of the income tax payment deadline from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020; issuance of marriage licenses by any register of deeds via remote audio-video communication. One entire section deals with the Buncombe County occupancy tax proceeds, authorizing up to $5 million for the Tourism Development Authority to assist small businesses with emergency grants.
More to Do in Raleigh
The Senate planned to return to Raleigh on May 5, with the House reconvening on May 6. Among the calendar items for the Senate is SB 709, Adopt Rhododendron as State Shrub, which was slipped into the public bill pile on May 2 by WNC’s Sen. Ralph Hise of District 47, the Senate’s Deputy President Pro Temp.
On a more pressing level, the COVID-19 Recovery Act made a specific reference to the absence of any allocation for voting needs in the state in the upcoming elections: “It is the intent of the General Assembly to address the State’s additional elections needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in separate legislation.”
According to the Charlotte Observer, the federal Help America Vote Act funds approved by President Donald Trump in December could provide over $11 million dollars in election assistance to North Carolina, provided the legislature comes up with the required state match of around $4.5 million.
Guaranteeing Your (Safe) Access to Vote
Meanwhile, a coalition of statewide organizations has laid out their recommendations for ensuring voting access in the shadow of COVID-19. In a mid-March letter to the NC State Board of Elections, the advocates ask that government agencies at all levels take decisive action to ensure that voting in the June 23 Republican congressional District 11 primary runoff, and in the general election on November 3, will be accessible, safe, and secure. Recommendations include contingency plans for an all-mail election; support for intensive poll worker recruitment; relocation of in-person voting from buildings that serve high-risk populations (such as retirement facilities); and ensuring adequate curbside voting as a low-contact/no-contact voting option.
The letter points out the necessity to request funding through the General Assembly for potential universal vote-by-mail; provision of sanitation equipment; provision of poll workers; technology; and a “rapid response fund” to support county BOEs in responding to unexpected issues. Advocating organizations include the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, Common Cause North Carolina, and North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections.
Separately, a lawsuit was filed May 4 against the state, supported by the Right to Vote Foundation and the National Redistricting Foundation (affiliated with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee), seeking increased vote-at-home and safe in-person voting provisions in the state.
NC Joins Clean Water Suit
With the nation’s eyes on the coronavirus, the latest rollback of environmental quality gains from the White House is an attempt to weaken the much heralded Clean Water Act. Citing the need to protect our “health, seafood industry, agricultural sector, and quality of life,” NC Attorney General Josh Stein has now filed a lawsuit against this Trump administration move that would weaken clean water protection.
According to Stein’s office, the proposal, called the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule, would endanger the state’s rivers, lakes and fisheries “to a degree North Carolina has not seen in decades.” The lawsuit seeks to preserve current protections that were put in place under the George W. Bush administration almost 30 years ago.
Stein has company in filing the suit. The attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, along with the District of Columbia and the City of New York, are all involved in the suit.
Legal Help for Small Businesses and Nonprofits
A new resource has just been announced for small businesses and nonprofits with legal needs from the impact of COVID-19. The North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center is partnering with NC law firms and Lawyers for Good Government to provide a remote legal clinic, available to businesses or nonprofits with 25 or fewer employees. The NC Small Business/Nonprofit Initiative will match qualifying businesses with pro bono lawyers for a free 45-minute phone or virtual legal consultation.
To request aid through their online form, go to Pro Bono Resource Center’s website, ncprobono.org.
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts.