North Carolina’s Senate Democrats unveiled millions of dollars in proposed spending on COVID-19 relief Friday, including expanded unemployment benefits, small business relief, public school cash, community-wide testing, and boosted absentee voting.
“We as Democrats feel we ought to be as or more responsive than Congress,” said state Sen. Gladys Robinson. “This is our intent with this, to take care of the citizens of North Carolina.”
Robinson said Senate Democrats prepared their proposals in several working groups within their caucus, in lieu of any public hearings convened by the chamber’s Republican leadership to discuss COVID-19 relief.
While lawmakers in NC’s House of Representatives have been mulling a host of COVID-19 relief plans in public committee hearings, the state Senate has been mostly quiet.
Among Senate Democrats’ most substantial proposals:
- Increase the state’s maximum weekly unemployment benefit from $350 to $500, and boost the duration of benefits from a max of 12 weeks to 26 weeks. NC has offered some of the most modest benefits in the nation since Republican leadership slashed the program in 2013. Still, with hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians filing for unemployment each week, GOP lawmakers in both chambers have been reluctant to boost benefits.
- Budget $205 million in emergency education funding, while waiving a number of testing and licensing requirements that House Republicans are also acting to waive.
- Establish a COVID-19 disaster relief fund.
- Spend $125 million in emergency childcare relief for healthcare workers.
- Launch a “rapid-testing” program through the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Designate Election Day as a state holiday. Democrats would also boost absentee, curbside and drive-thru voting options. “This will be critical,” Robinson said. “Especially if we see another onset of COVID-19.”
- Offer funding to expand broadband Internet services, recognizing gaps in access across the state. Lawmakers said this was especially key with many school systems offering remote learning options while schools are closed.
- Fund emergency childcare services for “essential” workers in local government.
- Appropriate $6 million, in addition to federal CARES Act funding, to stock food banks.
A representative for Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, the Rockingham County Republican who heads the chamber, did not immediately return a request for comment Friday morning, although Berger’s Senate, in contrast to the House, tends to ready draft legislation behind closed doors. Their COVID-19 discussions have been no different.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, said his caucus split into working groups after the House began their own committee hearings, focusing on unemployment, health care, local government, education, and elections. (Click on each of these links to see the respective working group’s full proposal.)
“It became obvious really quickly that we were talking about far more things than just the question of the health challenge we face with COVID-19,” Blue said.
Blue added that Medicaid expansion remains Democrats’ top healthcare priority, although Senate and House Republican leadership has long opposed efforts for expansion. Expansion would be mostly funded by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act.
“If we could reach consensus on Mediciad expansion, that would be the first thing that we would do,” Blue said.
Blue said Democrats shared their proposals with Berger’s office, as well as Gov. Roy Cooper and Senate committee chairs.
Asked about transparency, given working groups did not hold their discussions in open meetings, Blue said Democrats “did the best process we could” with Senate committees not holding public hearings.