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Lawmakers finalize how state will spend COVID-19 funds

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators finalized Thursday how to distribute more federal coronavirus relief money earmarked for the state and adjusting how some previously approved funds are spent.

Both the Senate and House voted unanimously on the spending package — at least the fourth approved by the General Assembly since last spring. It allocates $1.7 billion that went to the state through a relief bill approved by Congress in December. Republican lawmakers managing the bill put the measure on the fast track this week.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper already signed a law last month that distributes $2.2 billion for the state from the December congressional action. Most of that money was authorized to help K-12 schools and emergency rental assistance efforts. Thursday’s bill also goes to Cooper, who is likely to sign it.

Legislators have little leeway in the categories for which the relief dollars must be spent, including the latest batch of funds identified in Thursday’s measure. Over $1.1 billion combined will help pay for virus testing and prevention, transportation projects and University of North Carolina system expenses. Another $336 million in child care funds would cover co-payments for families who receives subsidizes services, and could be used as financial assistance to keep day-care centers afloat financially and their classrooms and nurseries clean.

The measure also specifies further how money approved in February would be spent. Lawmakers make clear that $40 million in emergency money for K-12 schools would go toward a summer school program pushed by House Speaker Tim Moore and others to assist children at risk of academic failure following up to a year of virtual learning.

The legislation also extends deadlines and waivers for several government activities initiated last year due to the pandemic. One extends a prohibition upon UNC system campuses charging students interest on past-due accounts until the end of 2021.

A handful of provisions were deleted after colleagues raised questions. In the House, budget-writers removed an item that would have extended suspending inspections of adult care homes, hospitals, substance abuse prevention centers and hospices through the end of 2021. Lawmakers said the state Department of Health and Human Services did not seek the extension.

And the Senate removed from the final product another House provision that would have extended the period of time by which child sex abuse victims otherwise barred by a statue of limitations to sue could file lawsuits. A 2019 law gave these victims until the end of 2021 to file. The House package wanted to extend it until the end of 2022.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and budget-writer, said the abuse litigation item was removed because the expiration date was part of a carefully agreed-upon compromise measure in 2019. He said the expiration could be reconsidered later this year.

But Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said the one-year extension should have been retained, saying civil courts have been essentially out of reach to the public during lockdowns and the curtailment of judicial activities.

Marcus also criticized Republicans for failing to consider bonuses for K-12 and university educators and higher weekly maximum benefits for unemployed workers.

Both items are part of Cooper’s requests to spend money from state coffers for COVID relief. House Republicans defeated Democratic amendments offered on these topics.

“This bill has a lot of good in it,” Marcus said on the Senate floor, but “it also leaves out some very important things and creates some problems.”

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