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House And Senate Disagree On COVID-19 Relief Spending

Protestor holds a sign that reads 'end the tyranny.'
Kate Medley

State lawmakers are working out details − and their differences − on legislation to distribute more than $1 billion dollars in coronavirus relief funds.

The Senate's bill would spend more than $1.2 billion federal dollars on a wide range of needs, including $125 million in small business loans and $9 million for expanding broadband access in rural areas. Senator Erica Smith represents such communities in eastern North Carolina and said during a virtual committee meeting that might not be enough.

"They can't even order their groceries online," she said.

The House is expected to vote Thursday on legislation that would dole out a half billion more than the Senate's proposal, including $40 million to expand Medicaid coverage and additional aid for the K-12 public schools and university research. Legislators from both chambers still will have to negotiate to close that gap and get a final measure to Cooper's desk, possibly by Friday.

The Senate is taking a guarded approach when it comes to earmarking federal dollars compared to the House. Senate leaders are worried about the state's fragile budget picture since the economic downturn has dried up revenues. Federal money could be allowed later to fill budget shortfalls.

"We're trying to be as cautious as we can while taking care of what we know are immediate needs," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican and a chief budget-writer. "Our budget in the next couple of years is going to be difficult."

Still, senators agreed Wednesday evening to use more federal funds for items that Cooper had sought in his initial $1.4 billion request. The additional $131 million focuses on expanding rural and minority health and nursing home initiatives, helping fill up food banks and paying more to school employees who are serving meals to students in low-income families.

"This truly does have all of the aspects of a consensus bill," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said before the amended Senate package passed 48-0.

North Carolina's share from the largest coronavirus rescue package is more than $3.5 billion. The House package would distribute $1.7 billion of this money, while the amended Senate package is more than $1.3 billion. These totals don't include more than $1.2 billion in grants from another federal relief law going to North Carolina and identified in the competing legislation.

House Speaker Tim Moore said many of the differences between the House and the Senate, both controlled by Republicans, are more about spending levels, rather than disagreements about the most pressing demands. While the House wants to give $75 million to the Golden LEAF Foundation to fund low-cost small business loans, the Senate would provide $125 million.

"We'll work out the differences," Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said in a brief interview, adding senators "see the same needs that we've identified. It's just a question of how to get the funding there and how much."

But policy differences remained as well. The House would expand Medicaid temporarily so people making up to twice the poverty rate can be treated for coronavirus-related maladies. The Senate proposal doesn't have that. Berger has said that spending going directly to medical providers will help treat the uninsured.

Both chambers have said they plan to address election-related issues in separate legislation. That may not happen until an anticipated weeks-long break after initial COVID-19 legislation is finalized. That timeline could be problematic for the June 23 Republican primary runoff for the 11th Congressional District. In-person voting begins June 4.

State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell urged legislators on Wednesday to approve $2.1 million in state funds to receive $11 million in federal election funds. The money would be used in part to ensure voting precincts in June and in the fall are equipped with disposable pens and styluses, masks and shields to prevent the spread of illness. The money also would prepare for expanded mail-in absentee voting.

Local elections board members in the 11th District also are asking legislators to change the law that requires polling place workers to live in the precinct they are staffing. saying many regular precinct workers don't want to work. They are "elderly and are genuinely concerned about their health," the board members wrote Monday.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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