The North Carolina General Assembly goes back into session on Sept. 2, which would be the first time either the House or Senate have convened since July 11.
But the House Select Committee on COVID-19 has restarted meetings to discuss the legislature’s approach to the newest wave of coronavirus-related issues.
The House’s Committee on COVID-19 is much larger than an ordinary legislative committee, being composed of 75 members from all across the state. The size of the committee meant it had to be divided into four separate working groups, each focused on a separate policy area: education, health care, economic support and continuity of state operations.
The committee as a whole is overseen by House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, who is listed as the official chairperson of the committee as a whole. However, each work group has its own set of bipartisan chairpersons to oversee its affairs.
A spotlight on education
Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, one of the chairpersons of the committee’s working group for education, said the role of the legislature at this stage was ensuring that schools remained properly funded.
He said the working group was currently evaluating the needs of schools across the state when it comes to personal protective equipment, student meals and emotional support and counseling.
He also said the working group is in talks with the state’s board of education, the UNC Board of Governors and the boards of governors of independent schools to ensure the schools themselves are able to communicate their needs to the legislature and have a say in the policy-making process.
Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, another of the working group’s chairpersons, cited the need to expand internet broadband access across the state.
She acknowledged the high price of staying connected, including in scenarios where families do not have enough devices for everyone in the household.
“We know there’s inequitable access to broadband,” Clemmons said. “We’re going to be creating massive gaps for kids.”
She said she believed it was necessary for the state and federal government to work together to provide these services, like the initiative to provide electricity to rural parts of the state in the mid-twentieth century. She said she believed a private-public partnership on this front could help reduce the financial burden for both parties.
Help for health care
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, chairperson for the committee’s working group on health care, detailed some of the plans to support the state’s health care infrastructure over the coming months.
He said the group was looking to allocate funds in two different phases: First, they would appropriate money the legislature already has on hand from the first federal CARES Act, which he approximated to $550 million. Then, money from the federal government’s second COVID-19 stimulus package, which has yet to be passed, would be appropriated as soon as possible.
He said some of his working group's priorities are to provide funding for PPE, continue to fund hospitals and physicians and ramp up funding for childcare facilities as parents return to work.
The road to economic recovery
Joseph Kyzer, a communications director for Moore, said much of the present state of North Carolina's economy can be attributed to measures taken by the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the past decade.
He credited responsible state finances as a reason for which North Carolina has been able to make more investments into providing broadband access to rural communities, improving infrastructure and helping small businesses during the pandemic.
Rep. John Autry, D-Mecklenburg, a member of the economic working group, however, said much still needs to be done.
He said North Carolina's unemployment system was in dire need of reform, calling the maximum benefit one can earn from it, $350 per week, far too low and the unemployment period far too short. He added that he had not seen any data proving people receiving unemployment benefits are less incentivized to work.
“The unemployment system makes one wonder ‘Was it actually put together to help people or was it designed to be an impediment to people?’”
Autry also said the state needs to provide financial assistance for individuals having difficulty paying rent and their utility bills. Al Ripley, a Consumer and Housing policy specialist for the N.C. Justice Center, agreed.
He said people across North Carolina, especially low-income families, are facing financial shortfalls because of the expiration of federal stimulus benefits. In addition, individuals are threatened with having their utilities shut off, since the executive order prohibiting the shutoff of utilities for nonpayment ended on July 29.
“We really need the General Assembly to make funding available to help people pay their rent and pay their utility bill — especially right now,” Ripley said.
As the Committee on COVID-19's working groups continue to meet in the days leading up to the return to session, they will continue to discuss these issues and many others.
Lambeth made sure to clarify that the legislature remains hard at work.
“Quite frankly, there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, in the committee meetings," Lambeth said. "The co-chairs of the health committee are meeting every week.
“We’re all out and about trying to figure out what to do.”
The House and the Senate will return from recess Sept. 2.