Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

Twelve good ideas for the General Assembly to move forward on now

This week was the filing deadline for legislative proposals at the General Assembly. While it isn’t the last opportunity for legislators to introduce policy ideas for consideration, it presents an important milestone in the session and a crucial time to review the priorities of policymakers.

The work of the General Assembly will be critical to address the public health threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effects through the economy. There remain many gaps in the response from federal and state policymakers and the result is persistently high needs for families and communities across North Carolina.

The following are a dozen legislative proposals that would support the well-being of our neighbors and secure a stronger recovery for our state.

  1. House Bill 1229 (Howard, Wray, Saine) would provide funding for the unemployment insurance system, which has been overwhelmed by a historic number claims and pays out only half of those claims to individuals. It would also extend a temporary waiver on the time limit on food assistance. House Bill 1075 (Alston, Batch, Holley, Hunt) and Senate Bill 792 (Nickel, Chaudhuri) would also make important fixes to the system to protect workers and the economy when federal programs expire at the end of July.
  2. House Bill 1120 and Senate Bill 778 (Murdock, Smith, Foushee) would expand anti-hunger programming on college campuses  and provide funding to UNC institutions for this purpose. With college students excluded from federal food assistance and often facing higher rates of food insecurity, this program makes sense anytime, but particularly when hardship is likely to persist. Senate Bill 849 (Petersen), another important anti-hunger proposal, would remove the ban on food assistance for certain people with drug felonies and would support their successful re-entry from prisons and jails to society.
  3. House Bill 1040 (Batch, Brewer, Clark, Gailliard) and Senate Bill 834 (Robinson, Foushee, Blue) would close the Medicaid coverage gap. It would ensure that people who have lost health insurance during COVID-19, as well as those who were blocked from accessing Medicaid before the virus hit, can receive affordable care. In addition to creating a healthier, stronger community, researchers estimate the state would increase its business activity by $11.7 billion in just three years between 2020-2022 which could be spent on education, infrastructure and other needs.
  4. A series of bills would make important steps in addressing the state’s affordable housing challenge, including the unique pressures on renters and homeowners whose income has been disrupted by COVID-19. House Bill 1134 (Autry, Holley, Harris, Butler) and House Bill 1135 (Autry, Holley, Harrison, Butler) would provide rental and foreclosure assistance, respectively, while House Bill 1200 (Szoka, Saine, Baker, P. Jones) would do the same. House Bill 1208 (Lambeth) would put more dollars towards the state’s Workforce Housing Loan Program, supporting the development of more affordable units across the state.
  5. Several proposals would provide investments and policy changes that would expand access to broadband across the state, a vital component of modern infrastructure that has been critical during the pandemic for workers and students. Senate Bill 769 would provide opportunities for municipalities to build out broadband infrastructure; House Bill 1071 (Horn, Clemmons, Fraley) would support school connectivity; House Bill 1122 (Queen, Russell, Brewer, Hunt) would fund affordable broadband access; and House Bill 1105 (Arp, Saine, B. Jones, Reives) would support the GREAT program.
  6. House Bill 1117 (von Haefen, Belk, Fisher, Hunt) seeks to support the state’s child care system by ensuring providers have access to protective equipment, paid sick days and other supports to keep child care centers and family homes safe.
  7. House Bill 1046 (Harrison, Batch, Fisher) was filed earlier this spring with bipartisan support. It would eliminate the exemption for large employers that currently exists in the federal emergency paid sick days and paid leave provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. An estimated 58% to 83% of working North Carolinians can’t access the COVID-related leave. Ensuring sick people can stay home from work is a critical tool in the fight to prevent the spread of the virus, especially as more people are returning to the workplace.
  8. Access to personal protective equipment and hazard pay for workers remains a significant gap in the response, and several bills seek to address the issue: House Bill 1085 (Hunt, Harrison, Fisher, Autry) and Senate Bill 740 (Peterson, Garrett) would provide personal protective equipment to state employees; Senate Bill 779 (Murdock, Waddell, Peterson) and House Bill 1076 (Alston, Morey, Hawkins) would provide this equipment to working inmates and prison staff; and Senate Bill 839 (Mohammed, Van Duyn, Peterson) would provide hazard pay and personal protective equipment to public school personnel.
  9. Two proposals would seek to provide more cash income for low-income households. Senate Bill 734 (deViere, Foushee, Garrett) would enact a state Earned Income Tax Credit while House Bill 1188 (Autry, Hawkins, Morey, Holley) would increase the TANF benefit level to families living in poverty.
  10. Several bills recognize the potential hit to public services and agencies from revenue losses, and seek to bolster funding or provide more tools to government to meet public needs. House Bill 1090 (McNeill) would address loss of receipts by state agencies and Senate Bill 831 (Nickel) would provide municipalities with the option to consider an increased occupancy tax for public investments. House Bill 1227 (Autry, Hawkins, Holley, Ager) would provide resources to the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure children and families are connected to all of the federal safety net programs for which they are eligible. Several proposals would bond for capital projects: House Bill 1225 (Moore, Elmore, Torbett, Wray) would seek $900 million in bonding for projects in education, while House Bill 1088 (Harris, von Haefen, R. Smith, K. Smith) and Senate Bill 766 (Chaudhuri, Garrett, deViere) would provide bonding for various public projects.
  11. A range of legislative proposals would address the safety issues facing people in the state’s prisons, jails, and court system in light of COVID-19. House Bill 1086 (John, Morey, Ball, Brewer)) would create a pretrial release study committee; House Bill 1167 (Morey, Richardson, Alston) would require testing for people released from prison and notification of the release to DHHS or LRC; Senate Bill 860 (Smith) would support the release of incarcerated people and juveniles into the community and House Bill 1077 (Alston, Morey, Hawkins) would ban the box for hiring during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
  12. It will be even more important that North Carolina commits to address the concerns outlined in the Leandro North Carolina case that affirm the constitutional responsibility of the state to deliver a sound basic education to every child. Two bills, House Bill 1129 (Meyer, Clemmons, Ball, R. Smith) and House Bill 1130 (von Haefen, Gill, Hunt, Russell), would make investments in education, improve accountability provisions, and study how to align allotments with students’ needs.

While there is much to celebrate on the list of bills filed—and work to be put in to ensure the bills are enacted—there are also harmful ideas in the mix, including proposals to enact a franchise tax cut with federal COVID-19 dollars, a significant increase to saving reserves at a time when needs could go unmet and a further restriction on the uses of federal Coronavirus Relief dollars by state leaders.

There is great promise of a legislative session that meets the moment presented by COVID-19 and advances solutions that help people and build systems that can sustain our recovery. We also have tremendous work ahead to make sure that our response matches the need.

Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.

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