Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Cooper’s Covid-19 emergency budget: Bonuses for educators, extended unemployment benefits, help for restaurants and bars

Gov. Roy Cooper rolled out plans for his supplemental emergency relief budget to help get North Carolina back on track after taking health and economic hits from Covid-19. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Gov. Roy Cooper)

Gov. Roy Cooper rolled out a supplemental emergency relief budget to include $4 billion in federal money that North Carolina received from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed by Congress at the end of December. He is also asking for an additional $695 million from the $5 billion available in the North Carolina general fund.

Cooper said the money will help with resiliency and recovery after battling an unprecedented health and economic crisis due to Covid-19. He broke down his plan into three parts: “defeating Covid, building back our people and our economy, and then looking forward to building a more educated, skilled workforce.”

First and foremost, he would use partial funds to get more testing, tracing and treatment supplies needed to keep North Carolinians safe from Covid-19, including access to more vaccines.

“With the virus continuing to spread rapidly, and new variants identified throughout the country, we need to use the resources we have to slow its spread and protect public health,” Cooper said.

As of now, North Carolina has seen a slow decline in infection rates and hospitalizations. The state’s positive case rate is 7.2%, its lowest in over two months. 

The Covid-19 County Alert Map also looks more promising. Two weeks ago 86 counties appeared in the critical red zone, showing significant viral spread; it’s since dropped to 61. New Hanover now is considered orange (substantial viral spread), with Brunswick and Pender remaining red.

“For the first time since we started this report back in November, our trends moved in a positive direction,” North Carolina’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, said. She also starkly reminded that “94% of North Carolina and counties still remain red or orange with critical or substantial COVID spread.”

North Carolina has a long way to go before turning the curve to some level of normality, officials added. In order to steer the state back to health and with a healthy economy, Cooper vowed to make strong investments for North Carolinians.

Appropriating $546 million to his Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program, he said, will keep families in their homes. The program pays rent and utilities for those struggling with bills. In 2020 the program provided aid to 35,000 families and paid out $125 million, though $200 million in requests were made. 

Cooper also earmarked $37 million for small businesses, specifically focusing on historically underutilized businesses, and especially the tourism and hospitality industries.

“We know bars and restaurants are hurting,” Cooper said. “This budget proposes eliminating ABC permit fees, which will save them about $25 million.” 

Praising the support from Republican and Democratic legislators and leaders, Cooper said input on the plan was given from both sides of the aisle. He also sought insight from health experts, businesses, workers and educators.

In fact, he pointed to education staff being the only folks left out for state raises over the last two years. Cooper wants to offer one-time bonuses of $2,500 for teachers and principals, $1,500 for school personnel in public K-12, and $2,000 for workers in community colleges and universities. 

“In the last year our teachers and school staff, along with community college and university workers, have gone above and beyond,” Cooper said. “Teachers have always been our heroes. But throughout this pandemic, they have underscored their courage and commitment to educating our children — bus drivers are getting up early and taking meals to families and kids to schools; custodians are working hard to keep classrooms clean and sanitizing.”

He also wants to funnel $2 billion into emergency assistance for public and private schools, K-12, which on Tuesday the governor urged a return to in-person learning across all 115 school districts.

The governor, however, didn’t concede to early vaccination of school staff and personnel when pressed by reporters. Teachers are scheduled to be inoculated in Group 3 as frontline essential workers, which Cohen doesn’t anticipate happening for a few more weeks. 

Cooper maintained the data has informed student-to-student and student-to-teacher transmission rates aren’t high, and that elementary students can be spaced apart in classrooms at only 3 feet of social distancing. 

“It is based upon research that has occurred that shows that going back to school and getting students in the classroom can be done safely with the appropriate health protocols that are in place,” Cooper said. 

“Again, we are looking at the science that shows that transmission in middle and high school is closer to what we see in adults, which is why we want to maintain that 6 feet of distance,” Cohen said. “I’d also emphasize that it is particularly in sports where we are seeing more transmission of a virus. But when you’re in school, and you’re maintaining 6 feet, and you’re wearing your mask, we’re seeing very little viral spread.

The New Hanover County Association of Educators made a statement on Jan. 28 encouraging the NHC Board of Education to prioritize teachers and school workers’ vaccinations.

“Schools can fully reopen safely once our school employees have access to first and second doses of the COVID vaccine,” the statement noted, also urging the necessity of mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing of six-feet “at all times for everyone.”

The pandemic has highlighted rising technological needs in schools, too, due to remote-learning — as well as in medicine, specifically, from a rise in telehealth. Cooper wants to spend $30 million to extend access to high-speed internet, with more than 35,000 hotspots dedicated to education. Though only a quick fix, he proposes a bond package to address these needs in the long term.

Part of the budget also would expand unemployment benefits up to 26 from 12 weeks, with the cap going from $350 to $500 a week. As of November 2020, North Carolina experienced a 2.6% increase in unemployment from a year prior. Last reported, it stood at 6.2%, with 308,905 people unemployed, an increase of more than 123,000 from November 2019.

Cooper said legislative leaders are waiting to see the Consensus Revenue Forecast before making any decisions on his budget proposal. 

“That’s coming up very soon,” he assured. “This is not an unreasonable request for an emergency situation.” 

Supplemental budget breakdown

$4 billion from federal funds will provide:

  • Approximately $2 billion for emergency assistance for public and private K-12 schools and higher education institutions.
  • $336 million for childcare and development block grants.
  • Approximately $700 million for access to vaccines and testing, tracing and prevention measures to slow the spread of the virus.
  • $546 million for emergency rental assistance, which will build on North Carolina’s current work. While this is the first dedicated federal funding for rental assistance, North Carolina recognized the extraordinary need to help people stay in their homes during the pandemic and created the HOPE program to pay back rent and utilities using last year’s CRF funds.
  • $258 million for Highway Infrastructure and $65 million for airports.
  • $47 million for Community Mental Health Services.
  • Funding for food assistance programs, such as SNAP and school nutrition.

$695 million from the North Carolina General Fund will provide:

  • $50 million for continued hazard duty pay for state employees on the frontlines of COVID-19, especially law enforcement and corrections personnel who face COVID-19 every day.
  • $64.5 million for the replenishment of the North Carolina State Health Plan, which has incurred costs responding to COVID-19.
  • $468 million for bonuses for educators and school personnel in public K-12 schools, community colleges and the university system. Educators have stepped up in extraordinary ways during the pandemic but were not a part of the raises approved in the last biennium for state employees. 
  • $30 million to extend high-speed internet to all corners of the state and other urgent connectivity initiatives, such as IT infrastructure, security for community colleges and enhancement of 35,000 hotspots used for education.
  • $37 million to support small businesses that have suffered during the pandemic and often don’t have large cash reserves, including small business counselling, marketing for tourism and hospitality, ReTOOLNC program for historically underutilized businesses (HUBs), and the business loan program at Golden L.E.A.F.
  • Expansion of state unemployment benefits, which are still among the lowest in the country. Despite the pandemic forcing thousands of people to lose their jobs – particularly in the restaurant and service industries – North Carolina’s Unemployment Trust Fund remains healthy, with a balance of more than $2.59 billion. North Carolina should increase the maximum duration of benefits to 26 weeks and increase the maximum benefit from $350 to $500 per week. 

Read the full proposal:

Final Supplemental Budget R… by Shea Carver

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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