By Anne Blythe

As North Carolina continues to battle COVID-19 in the coming year, Gov. Roy Cooper said on Thursday that he wanted state lawmakers to dip into the nearly $5 billion that they’ve set aside in a rainy day fund and agree to spend $695 million of that money on one-time teacher bonuses, hazard duty pay for workers on the frontlines fighting the coronavirus pandemic, expanding unemployment benefits, high-speed internet access and more.

Those state funds would be added to $4 billion in federal funds recently appropriated to the state by Congress as part of the governor’s $4.738 billion supplemental spending proposal to help the state continue to fight COVID-19 while also setting up recovery and rebuilding programs for the other side of this pandemic.

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“In this new year, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a dangerous and disruptive force in our state with more than 9,000 deaths and many others seriously ill,” Cooper said in a letter to North Carolina lawmakers accompanying his plan. “Hospitals and frontline healthcare workers are running overtime to treat patients, while businesses continue to struggle to serve customers, and parents and teachers stretch to keep children safe and learning. While the arrival of vaccines brings hope, our people still need help.”

Cooper shared his recommendations in a briefing with reporters on Thursday, the same day lawmakers sent their own plan for spending $2.233 billion of the new federal pandemic aid to the governor’s desk.

Cooper was asked if he would sign the bill into law.

Cooper said he and his budget team have been in contact with legislators as he developed his spending plan and was aware that lawmakers were working on a bill to allocate federal funds.

“They told me they were going ahead to pass legislation to appropriate this money,” Cooper told reporters. “I’ll have to look at the bill to make sure I know everything that is in there, but I’m in full agreement with them appropriating that money. If we did anything with that bill other than sign it, it wouldn’t be because there’s a dispute over when it was passed. We’re glad that they’ve appropriated those funds that are already a part of this.”

Breaking down the numbers

Cooper’s plan would allot federal funds as follows:

  • Nearly $2 billion to public and private K-12 schools and higher education institutions.
  • Nearly $700 million to give residents access to vaccines and testing, tracing and prevention measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
  • $546 million to provide emergency rental assistance, with hopes that the state can use the federal funds in the North Carolina HOPE program established last year to help residents pay rent and utility bills to avoid homelessness.
  • $336 million for child care and development block grants.
  • $47 million for Community Mental Health Services.

Some of the federal funding also would be used to provide food assistance through such programs as SNAP and school nutrition projects.

In contrast, the bill ratified by the legislature and sent to the governor would spend federal funds left over from bills passed by Congress in early 2020 that have been sitting in North Carolina coffers. They include:

  • Nearly $25 million to free and community health clinics to cover the costs of treating patients with COVID-19.
  • $102 million to hospitals with $65 million of that going to rural hospitals, $15 million to teaching hospitals, $15 million to other hospitals, a total of $7 million to select hospitals and a $2.5 million boost to Randolph Hospital, which declared bankruptcy in early 2020.
  • $23 million to the state’s skilled nursing facility association, the state’s assisted living association and the association representing adult care homes to help with costs of coping with COVID-19.
  • $155 million to public schools for nutrition programs, summer enrichment programs for students who fell behind in the pandemic and counseling services.

The legislature also would release funds that were sent to North Carolina by Congress in late December, that includes $95 million in federal spending earmarked for vaccines and $546 million in emergency rental assistance and $1.6 billion for schools.

Bonuses for teachers

Cooper’s plan to dip into the state’s emergency spending fund would allocate $468 million to be used for one-time bonuses for educators and school personnel in the public schools, community colleges and university system.

The bonuses he recommends are:

  • $2,500 for teachers and principals in the 115 public school districts across the state;
  • $2,000 bonuses for UNC system and community college personnel; and
  • $1,500 for non-certified employees in K-12 schools.

Because of a budget stalemate last year between the governor and Republicans in the General Assembly majority, teachers and workers in the public schools, community colleges and UNC system were the only state employees who did not get raises.

Just this week, Cooper and state education leaders created a rift with teachers when they recommended that all school districts offer in-person classes for elementary and middle school students without moving those teachers 64 and younger to the head of  the line for vaccines.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday that she had talked with vaccine providers across the state to gauge whether they had seen a drop in interest for vaccine appointments from health care workers and people 65 and older.

That hasn’t been the case, Cohen said, meaning it could be weeks before teachers, firefighters, grocery store workers and others deemed essential are eligible for inoculation against the virus.

Hazard pay, higher unemployment benefits

Cooper’s spending plan takes into account the hazardous situation that law enforcement and corrections officers have been in while working during the pandemic.

His spending proposal recommends:

  • Using $50 million from the state rainy day fund for continued hazard duty pay for state employees on the frontlines of COVID-19, especially law enforcement and corrections personnel who face COVID-19 every day.
  • Using $64.5 million in state funds to replenish the North Carolina State Health Plan, which has incurred costs responding to COVID-19.
  • Using $30 million in state funds to extend high-speed internet infrastructure to rural areas of the state which struggled as medical appointments, school and other business moved online during the pandemic.
  • Using $37 million from the state rainy day fund to go to the Golden L.E.A.F. business loan program and the ReTOOLNC program for historically underutilized businesses (HUBs) to help small businesses that suffered losses with little cash reserves on hand.
  • Expanding state unemployment benefits in a state that has been singled out for having some of the worst across the country. Cooper proposes to increase the maximum weekly benefit to $500 per week, a $150 increase from the $350 that people who’ve lost their jobs get now. The governor also recommends increasing the number of weeks that people can draw unemployment benefits to 26.

“North Carolina’s Unemployment Trust Fund remains healthy, with a balance of more than $2.59 billion,” a press release accompanying the governor’s spending plan states.

To help bars and restaurants that have taken a huge hit during the pandemic, Cooper also proposes to waive ABC licensing fees, to lessen their burden in the coming year.

Cooper released his plan about a week ahead of when lawmakers are expected to get the state’s annual revenue forecast, which drives their budget planning.

Cooper was asked whether he thought there would be a budget standoff again this year, whether lawmakers would be on board with using state funds as he proposes.

“I’ll have to let them speak to that,” Cooper said. “They know about this proposal, in fact, we’ve been very transparent with them and have solicited their input. I’ve directed our budget staff to let Republican and Democratic legislators know what we’re doing and getting input from them. I see a lot of support for this on both sides of the aisle. I think some of them are wanting to see the consensus revenue forecast before making a decision.”

That forecast is expected to happen next week, according to Charlie Perusse, the state budget director.

“We believe the forecast is going to be very strong, and we have, this, over four billion, almost five billion dollars in unreserved cash in the general fund right now,” Cooper said. “This is not an unreasonable request in an emergency situation, and particularly since these educators did not get raises over the last two years, we think it is really important to try to keep them on board and reward their good work.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 9,578 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 776,307 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 2,741 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 683,697 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 9,013,793 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 791 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 635 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of Feb. 2, 1,142,943 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.