House COVID-19 committee economic support work group weighs challenges, responses

The NC House Select Committee on COVID-19’s Economic Support working group held its first meeting Wednesday as the state saw a record number of unemployment applications and lawmakers scrambled to find solutions for people and businesses financially devastated by the pandemic.

More than 166,000 unemployment claims have been since March 16, lawmakers heard in a report from the North Carolina Division of Employment Security — including 26,822 in the last 24 hours.

“We considered 2009 the high water mark and we took 100,000 claims a month in 2009,” said Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary for Employment Security for the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who chairs the select committee, appeared in person at the Legislative Building Wednesday morning. Most lawmakers attended via teleconference or video conference.

“This is an unprecedented time in our state and it’s an unprecedented time here at the legislature,” Moore told the working group.

The legislature is not scheduled to return to session until April 28. However, Moore said there have been discussions about how to return earlier under current social distancing protocols to begin passing much-needed legislation to deal with the crisis and to ensure North Carolina can take full advantage of federal aid packages now moving closer to passage in Washington.

Legislators need to be involved sooner rather than later though, Moore, said, and so a series of working groups has been formed.

“We have Republican and Democrat chairs of every single one of these committees,” Moore said. “That was intentional on my part because I wanted to be sure that every thing we do is approached in the spirit of bipartisanship and working together. There’s no doubt that people attending these meetings and people around the state have different opinions on different issues. But there are times, situations like this, that remind us that w are all first Americans and North Carolinians. At those times we have to put aside whatever differences we may have and focus on what we need to do to help the people who sent us here.”

Moore gave a rundown of what he said were robust emergency funds and savings that the state can use as much of the economy slows or shuts down due to the pandemic.

“Because we have budgeted wisely, we are in a good financial position,” Moore said. “As I’m speaking to you today we have $3.9 billion in our unemployment insurance trust fund. That gives us in a great position, particularly compared to a lot of other states, to deal with the needs of our citizens. We have $1.1 billion of savings reserve for rainy days and disasters. I certainly think what we’re dealing with today qualifies under both of those.

“We have roughly $2.2 billion in cash on hand or unappropriated funds that can be used. We have $184 million in the Medicaid contingency reserve — no doubt, though, we’re going to see those funds drained in short order I suspect as we see more and more people needing treatment and those rolls growing by virtue of current laws in place. We have $74 million remaining in disaster relief funds. So we are well suited, financially, as a state.”

Some of those numbers depend on projections and could change based on changes in tax revenue — both the amount and when the state receives it. Moore emphasized that the working group will be looking at tax relief in the form of extensions — postponing the state’s tax deadline to July 15 and changing statutes that would eliminate interest accruing on payments due on the original April 15 date. Gov. Roy Cooper can’t change those provisions through executive order.

Shifting tax due dates could shift as much as $2 billion from this fiscal year to the next, lawmakers heard in a report.

The working group will also need examine regulatory reform, Moore said, for example, delaying deadlines on driver’s license renewals to avoid creating lines at Division of Motor Vehicles offices. Those deadlines need to be pushed back up to 90 days or more, Moore said.

The work group discussed several issues, including reports of difficulties with applying for unemployment online, and details of small business loans from the federal government and nonprofits, with the help of the state. Lawmakers also discussed the possibility of delaying state collections actions and tax audits.

The teleconference audio cut out and made some remarks inaudible throughout the meeting, leading several of the lawmakers to ask that answers to their questions be e-mailed because they could not understand important details.

Committee members agreed the legislature needs to meet as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the working groups need to focus on the state’s critical economic needs, as well as possible legislation so that needed bills can be drafted and passed as quickly as possible.

“The sooner we can meet, the better,” said Rep. Michael Wray (D-Northampton), co-chair of the working group. “But nothing happens overnight. To have 166K unemployment claims in one week — people need their money and we thank our state employees on the front line helping to get that done.”

The committee’s working groups on Health Care and Education will meet tomorrow at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.

The public can  listen to a live audio stream of both meetings, which can be accessed via the General Assembly website by choosing audio for Room 1228.

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