Saturday, February 4, 2023

Legislating in the age of Covid-19: Progress, slowly, in Raleigh [Free read]

The North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCGA)
The North Carolina General Assembly isn’t scheduled to go back to work until late April. Many legislators want to start up sooner than that, but there are logistical challenges. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCGA)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly has a lot of work to do, including dispersing and supplementing the federal aid package and addressing the state’s limited unemployment benefits. There are two problems though — the assembly isn’t due to convene for another month and legislators still aren’t sure how to convene with tight restrictions on public gatherings in place.

With the passage of over $2 trillion in recovery and stimulus funding at the federal level, state representatives will need to map out how to disperse that money; in some cases, that will also involve ‘matching’ state-level money with federal funds.

There’s also the issue of North Carolina unemployment system which, in short, is designed as a stopgap between jobs, not a support system for hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs as a direct result of Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19. While Cooper included measures to relax some of the restrictions on the system, the Governor’s office can’t increase the weekly maximums or the length of time over which benefits are paid.

State legislators can do that — but they aren’t set to return to the General Assembly’s short session until late April, a month after Cooper put the entire state on lockdown and a month and a half after his orders shuttered many restaurants and bars.

According to State Senator Harper Peterson and Representative Deb Butler, the assembly will need to meet sooner than that — but so far, it’s not clear when. Or how.

“There’s a lot of priorities — for front-line healthcare workers we need testing, that’s crucial, and we need equipment, PPEs and other resources. We also need small business relief. And of course we have to tackle enhancements for unemployment. In terms of the [federal] relief package, we need to get that money into local hands. It’s all important, nobody gets put in the back seat — but we can’t wait, I can’t imagine we wait until the end of April,” Peterson said.

Butler also noted the importance of addressing the state’s “disgraceful” benefits level, among the lowest in the nation. Still, Butler noted “it’s going to be some time yet” before the General Assembly gets to work on the problem.

The main issue: by law, legislators are required to vote in person. Does this present a Catch-22, where legislators would need to vote to change the laws on how the vote, but would be unable to do so because they can’t currently convene a sufficient number of representatives to vote on anything?

Peterson said he wasn’t sure, but that it’s a daily conversation. He noted that on Wednesday, the House held its first-ever online committee meeting.

According to Business Insider’s Colin Campbell, the House’s coronavirus committee meeting began with the squelch of microphone feedback and was occasionally interrupted by bad connections — the run-of-the-mill issues that almost everyone shifting to a remote-working routine is dealing with right now.

While getting the hang of online committee work is a good start, there’s still the issue of voting. House Speaker Tim Moore suggested earlier this week that votes could be held open for a longer period of time; Butler also said that “votes taken in a staggered fashion” was a good possibility.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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