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Jun 12, 2020

North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

Lawmakers were back in Raleigh this week as this summer's short session kicked into full gear. Legislators took up bills not only dealing with the state's continued response to the coronavirus pandemic, but also began moving forward with bills and appropriations for budget items unrelated to the virus. Both the House and the Senate will reconvene Monday, June 15, the Senate at 2:00PM and the House at 3:00PM.

As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 39,481 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 572,677 completed tests, 1,064 deaths, 812 current hospitalizations, and all of the state's 100 counties had seen confirmed coronavirus cases. 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.


School Plans

As the state looks to reopen more and more businesses, school leaders are also looking at plans to get back to some semblance of normal for the upcoming school year. During a special called meeting of the State Board of Education (SBE) Thursday, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released their three-level plan to reopen schools for in-person instruction this fall. DPI based their guidance on recommendations made by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on the best way to safely reopen schools.

DPI's school reopening guidance is made up of three different plans with varying levels of restrictions:

  • Plan A would be the least restrictive of the three plans. School buildings would be open to all students and staff and would include minimal social distancing. Plan A would require schools to conduct daily symptom screenings and temperature checks for anyone entering the school building.
  • Plan B would open schools with moderate social distancing measures in place and would limit student density within a school facility to a 50% occupancy. Schools would be required to ensure that at least 6 feet of social distancing is maintained between people at all times in facilities and on transportation vehicles. Under Plan B, schools would be able to split students up so some students are on campus while others participate in remote learning, or schedule alternate days, weeks, or times of day that students are on campus. Each school would be able to choose the option that works best for them, including combining several options to create a hybrid schedule for students.
  • Plan C would close all school facilities. In-person instruction would be suspended and all teachers and students would be required to shift to remote learning, following their specific schools' remote learning plans.

While DPI has created the guidance for schools throughout the state, the decision on what plan schools will operate under will be left up to the discretion of Governor Cooper's office and DHHS in consultation with DPI and SBE. DHHS will use the same metrics that are used to decide which restrictions to loosen throughout the state to determine which plan schools will use. That decision is set to be made no later than July 1.


Reopening Legislation

After HB 536: Temp. Outdoor Restaurants for Outdoor Seating was vetoed last week by Governor Roy Cooper, House and Senate lawmakers put forward a new plan to reopen bars and gyms in North Carolina. This new version of HB 594: Temp Open Gyms/Health Clubs/Fitness Ctrs. combines the proposal for restaurants and bars with the proposal for gyms and fitness centers. If the bill becomes law, these facilities would be allowed to reopen so long as:

  • The business has been in existence since at least March 10.
  • Indoor capacity is limited to 50% and outdoor seating is limited to 50% of normal indoor capacity or 100 customers, whichever is less.
  • Employees are screened daily for symptoms and are required to wear face masks.
  • Contactless check-in must be available and sanitation stations should be available throughout the facilities.
  • Employees are required to conduct frequent cleanings of high-touch equipment or high-use areas, and a deep clean of the entire facility must take place at the close of business daily.
  • In open-space exercise areas and for group and studio fitness classes, gym goers must stay at least six feet apart and rooms and equipment must be cleaned at the end of each class.

One of the major concerns about the original bar bill that the Governor cited in his veto was that it limits his emergency authority and would require the General Assembly to take action in order to close these businesses again should the state see a spike in new cases or hospitalizations. Bill sponsors hoped to address this concern by amending the provision, giving the governor the authority to close bars and gyms again, so long as he receives a majority concurrence by the Council of State. 

While supporters of reopening legislation argued that this version of the bill was a fair compromise with the governor, many lawmakers were still concerned that the provision limits the emergency powers of the executive branch, noting the partisan make-up of the Council of State, with six Republicans and four Democrats. Lawmakers also expressed concerns about allowing these types of activities too soon as North Carolina continues to see an increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Ultimately, the bill passed the Senate in a 36-13 vote and the House in a 69-50 vote. The Governor now has 10 days to take action on the bill. 


Road Tests

With DMVs throughout North Carolina still closed, lawmakers sought to offer a lifeline to new drivers who would be getting their driver's license but have not been able to due to the coronavirus. HB 158: COVID-19 New Driver Response passed both the House and Senate Thursday, and now sits on the governor's desk awaiting his signature. The bill allows high school students who were enrolled in driver's education courses between January and March 16, 2020, and have completed 15 out of the 30 classroom hours typically required, to begin the behind-the-wheel portion of the course. For those students who completed less than the 15 hours of driver's education, a proficiency exam will be available that will allow them to waive the remainder of the classroom instruction requirement. The bill would also waive the road test for those seeking a limited provisional license. Those new drivers who qualify for the waiver in HB 158 will have to go back and take the road test once the DMV reopens and begins conducting road tests again before they will be able to receive their full license. 


Budget Bills

While North Carolina's financial picture remains unclear amidst the global health crisis that has shuttered businesses across the country, lawmakers moved forward with a handful of appropriations bills to piecemeal together funding for individual budget items. Some of the more substantial budget bills that moved through the legislature this week include:

  • SB 818: Compensation of Certain School Employees would keep the current teacher salary schedule increases intact based on years of experience. The bill would provide a $350 bonus for all teachers and instructional support personnel, and would encourage the governor to provide an additional $600 bonus to all teachers and support personnel using dollars provided to the governor through a discretionary fund in the CARES Act. Bonuses would also be given to school principals, and the bill clarifies their salary schedules for the upcoming school year. Lastly, SB 818 appropriates the funds needed to increase the average salary of all public school employee positions. The bill passed through the Senate Rules Committee Thursday morning and will now head to the Senate floor. 
  • SB 808: Medicaid Funding Act appropriates the funds needed for the Dorothea Dix campus relocation project with DHHS, along with the funds for updates and changes to the child welfare case management component of NC FAST. The bill would provide $50M from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to LME/MCOs to be used to fund behavioral health and crisis services. The bill also directs DHHS to begin Medicaid transformation no later than July 1, 2021 and appropriates funds for the Department to do so. Finally, the proposed bill adds prepaid health plans to the list of organizations subject to the gross premiums tax and insurance regulatory charge. 
  • SB 805: Coronavirus Relief Funds/Create Offsets appropriates $645,400,000 from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to be used to offset General Fund appropriations across state government. The funds can be used to meet payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services. The funds can also be put towards other state employees who are needed to help North Carolina mitigate and respond to the COVID-19 emergency, or to fund other COVID-19 related expenses necessary to keep the state government functioning. The federal guidance on these funds allows them to be used for payroll costs for public health and public safety employees, including doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, correctional officers, and the like. The funds must be spent by December 30 of this year. Both SB 805 and SB 808 await a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee. 
  • HB 1169: Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020 amends several of the state's voting laws to allow for the State and local boards of elections to conduct fair and safe elections in November during the pandemic. The bill would also transfer $2.1 million to the State Board of Elections from the CARES Act to create an online portal for absentee ballot requests, fund increased postage costs for mail-in absentee ballots, ensure an adequate number of poll workers, and recruit members to participate in multipartisan assistance teams. An additional $2.3 million and federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds would also be appropriated through HB 1169 to reimburse counties for eligible expenses. 
  • HB 1087: Water/Wastewater Public Enterprise Reform would establish a process to identify distressed public water and wastewater systems. The bill would appropriate $9 million to establish the Viable Utility Fund, which would be used to help public water systems in becoming self-sustaining. An additional $9 million would be appropriated for the Southern Regional Area Health Education Center, which would be used to fund medical residencies and structural improvements. 
  • HB 1096: UNC Omnibus Changes/UNC Lab School Funds amends several University of North Carolina program and operation statutes and would provide $500,000 in recurring funds to support lab school operations throughout the state.

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, June 15

1:00PM House: Rules, Calendar, and Operations

2:00PM Senate: Session Convenes

3:00PM House: Session Convenes

4:30PM Senate: Rules and Operations

Tuesday, June 16

8:30AM House: Appropriations

10:00AM House: Transportation

10:00AM Senate: Judiciary

11:00AM House: Education - Universities

1:00PM House: Homeland Security, Military, and Veterans Affairs

3:00PM House: Agriculture

4:00PM House: Pensions and Retirement

Wednesday, June 17

10:00AM Senate: Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources

Thursday, June 18

10:00AM Senate: Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources

10:00AM House: Judiciary