(The Center Square) – Pandemic relief is the primary focus of North Carolina's 2021 legislative session, but Senate Democrats said education, broadband expansion and health care also are on their agenda.
The General Assembly reconvened Wednesday, and lawmakers must create a state budget for the next two fiscal years and allocate federal aid before the session ends in early July.
Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said Wednesday the COVID-19 pandemic "could be the catalyst" to address unmet needs in North Carolina.
"COVID-19 has devastated the state and the country. It has worsened the weaknesses and equalities in our system and in our economy," Blue said. "I see this as an opportunity to do the most good for the people of the state."
North Carolina's economy is operating at 83% of where it was in early March before the pandemic, according to Moody's Analytics and CNN Business' Back-to-Normal Index. The state has $4.2 billion in unspent funding in its reserves and $243 million leftover in its Coronavirus Relief Fund. Lawmakers also said they expect more federal aid to pass in Congress under the new administration.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said he expects a COVID-19 spending bill to circulate in committee next week after another coronavirus-related bill, with technical changes, hits the floor.
The pandemic has widened health care and internet access gaps, lawmakers said.
Increasing broadband access has been an ongoing effort by the North Carolina Legislature. Lawmakers allocated $24 million in state funds to the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program in fiscal year 2020.
Lawmakers passed and Gov. Roy Cooper signed legislation in September that allocated another $30 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for private providers to apply for grants to expand broadband internet through the GREAT program. A total of $29.8 million was awarded in December to 11 providers and cooperatives for projects in 18 counties that are expected to connect nearly 16,000 households and 700 businesses to broadband.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairperson Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, said a lack of internet access could create an academic barrier for students in low-income households. According to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, at least 259,000 North Carolina households did not have access to adequate broadband in their homes in 2018, and 67% of those households do not have broadband because of the cost.
Attorney General Josh Stein has called on lawmakers to use $13.4 million won in a settlement from Dish Network to expand internet access for public schools. Senate and House Republicans said they would consider the funding in the legislative process.
North Carolina must spend an additional $427 million on education in fiscal year 2021 to meet a court-ordered mandate. The order is part of a 1997 case, Leandro v. the State of North Carolina, where the plaintiffs claimed students in poor school districts were not receiving the same educational resources as students in wealthy school districts.
The state must spend more than $4.9 billion for the next eight years on early childhood and K-12 education to meet constitutional requirements, according to a memo posted by EducationNC.
Foushee said Senate Democrats plan to support a $3.1 billion school construction bond that stalled in the Senate last summer. Speaker Moore also has expressed support for passing the bond package, which previously was approved by the House.
Health care spending, specifically Medicaid expansion, often has caused a bipartisan split in the General Assembly. Facing an impasse last session, budget writers had to pass piecemeal spending bills to allocate state funding. Republicans said they wouldn't support a full Medicaid expansion that would allow more North Carolinians to qualify for the mostly government-funded program. Democrats now say they are willing to explore other options this session.
"An extra 260,000 people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance during the pandemic, and that's on top of the more than half a million North Carolinians already in the health care coverage gap," Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D- Wake, said. "So, we clearly need to find some consensus on solutions to this crisis."
The General Assembly's sessions Wednesday were mostly ceremonial. Lawmakers plan to return Thursday, but a voting session is not expected until Feb. 3 or Feb. 4, Moore said.