Lawmakers kicked off the start of the biennium’s budget process this week with introductory meetings in each of the joint appropriations subcommittees. House leadership also announced that they would be unveiling the second COVID relief bill of the session next week, and discussions have begun on a third COVID relief bill that would allocate additional federal dollars. As lawmakers focus on providing relief from the impact the pandemic has had across the state, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was focused on expanding vaccine eligibility. The first round of Group 3 frontline essential workers became eligible to get the vaccine earlier this week. This first group is largely made up of childcare providers, teachers, and school personnel. The second half of group 3 individuals will be eligible to receive the vaccine beginning March 10. To date, North Carolina has administered 2,246,743 doses of the vaccine. For more information on vaccination data or individual eligibility, click here.
As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 852,981 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 10,091,588 completed tests, 11,137 deaths, and 1,498 current hospitalizations. As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.
For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website, and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.
Governor Roy Cooper (D) and DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen announced an easing of coronavirus restrictions Wednesday. Wednesday’s announcement comes as current Executive Order, EO 189, which extended the statewide-modified stay-at-home order, was set to expire Sunday. Gov. Cooper and Sec. Cohen explained that their decisions are based on science and data as the number of new cases, positive tests, and hospitalizations throughout the state are lower than they have been in months. The mandatory mask order will remain in place, but there will be a number of other big changes for the state geared at safely stimulating the economy and getting North Carolinians back to work. The new Executive Order 195, which goes into effect today at 5:00PM, makes a number of changes across the state:
- Curfew is lifted completely
- Some businesses, including restaurants, breweries and wineries, retail stores, gyms, museums, aquariums, pools, barber shops, and outdoor amusement parks will be able to reopen up to 50% occupancy
- On-site alcohol sales are extended to 11PM
- The 100-person cap on outdoor events, like sporting events, is lifted
- Some businesses, like bars, indoor amusement parks, movie theaters, and indoor sports arenas will be allowed to reopen indoors at 30% capacity with a 250-person cap
- The mass gathering limit will increase to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors
Wednesday was also the first day that Group 3 frontline workers were eligible to receive the vaccine. That includes teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, service workers, and grocery store employees, among others. Sec. Cohen mentioned a Bloomberg study that ranked North Carolina as the number one state in the nation for racial and ethnic equity in vaccine distribution. She said over two million doses of the vaccine have distributed so far, and that number is only growing. Both she and Gov. Cooper mentioned the potential for a nationwide release of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the coming weeks, which could help dramatically speed up vaccination rates.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Cooper also discussed the controversy surrounding the legislative push to mandate all schools reopen for in-person learning. The Governor said he does not support the reopening bill, SB 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families, in its current form, but we would sign a bill if it required schools follow DHHS health guidance and preserved state and local emergency authority.
This week, the General Assembly began their biennial process of drafting the next state budget with joint meetings of the separate, policy area-specific appropriations committees. The members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees on Education and Higher Education, Justice and Public Safety, General Government, Transportation, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Health and Human Services held several introductory meetings this week in which they heard presentations by staff from the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division and individual state agencies. These presentations provided broad overviews of how the budgetary process will unfold this year and allowed lawmakers to ask questions about revenue forecasts, previous budget numbers, and agency priorities and spending plans. Members in the various area committees heard similar sentiments from separate agencies about their needs this year for more funding to increase and diversify their workforces and modernize their operations.
Individual appropriations committees will continue to meet through the spring to discuss items relative to their policy areas to prepare for the full budget bill. The Office of State Budget and Management will present the Governor’s recommended budget sometime between March and April while the chairs of each appropriations committee jointly decide their own spending targets based on revenue estimates. In this biennium, the Senate will draft the first chamber budget before sending it over to the House. From there, the budget bill will go to a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the Senate and House versions. It is the General Assembly’s goal to pass a conference budget in both chambers by the end of the fiscal year, which ends in June.
House lawmakers quickly moved forward with their proposal to offer summer learning programs to K-12 students across the state this week. HB 82: Summer Learning Choice for NC Families made its way through three committees Tuesday before receiving a unanimous floor vote Wednesday afternoon. HB 82, introduced by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), lays out the framework for a six-week summer learning program in an effort to help make up some the ground many students lost during the pandemic. Districts would be required to offer the program, but it would be optional for parents to send their students. The program would be geared towards students that are at high risk of course or grade failure, but the program would be open to all students who want to participate. The summer learning programs would be fully funded through the use of federal CARES Act dollars and would provide students and families with all of the things schools typically provide during the year, such as meals and transportation.
It would not be mandatory for teachers to participate in the program, however, the bill gives districts the flexibility to offer short-term contracts to teachers and staff to provide this instruction. When planning the curriculum for the course, teachers will be required to build in individual and small group instruction for struggling students as well as social and emotional learning components in hopes of helping students deal with the past year away from the classroom.
The bill now heads over to the Senate for consideration.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, March 1
4:00PM Senate: Session Convenes
6:00PM House: Session Convenes
Tuesday, March 2
8:30AM House: Appropriations, General Government (Joint)
8:30AM House: Appropriations, Justice and Public Safety (Joint)
8:30AM House: Appropriations, Capital
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Justice and Public Safety
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on General Government and Information Technology
8:45AM House: Appropriations, Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources (Joint)
10:00AM House: Health
1:00PM House: Local Government
1:00PM House: Education - K-12
2:00PM House: Appropriations
3:00PM House: Energy and Public Utilities
Wednesday, March 3
8:30AM Senate: Joint Appropriations on Department of Transportation
11:00AM House: State Government
1:00PM House: Agriculture
2:00PM Senate: State and Local Government
Thursday, March 4
11:00AM House: Education - Community Colleges