General Assembly chooses politics over people in COVID relief bill

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The North Carolina General Assembly gave final approval to its plan for spending additional Coronavirus Relief Funds yesterday; the bill has been sent to the Governor.  

The proposal is another brick in the wall that legislative leaders are building between the people of this state and the promise of a way out of this immediate crisis and to a better life. That wall of flawed policy choices, misdirected dollars and inadequate responses has been built over a decade and will continue to block our state from a full and just recovery.  

Even the most simple, basic, and obvious funding decisions to help millions of people in North Carolina survive the COVID-19 crisis are ignored in the legislation.

Years of underinvestment left us ill-prepared to respond adequately and in a timely way to the pandemic and the job losses that have followed. It didn’t have to be that way nor did the suffering have to be so acute and so inequitable. 

We would be much better position to weather this current crisis if our state had committed, at any point over the last economic expansion, to affordable rental housing and utilities, a strong unemployment insurance system, the expansion of Medicaid,  a robust safety net to address poverty, workplace protections and living wages.

Instead, legislative leaders chose tax cuts for big companies and the rich. 

Once again, yesterday, they displayed a misunderstanding of the realities that people face. They made clear just how out of touch they are with the hardships families are grappling with today. People don’t need money to have a nice dinner out and a babysitter; they need a quality and affordable childcare option so that they can go to work. They need access to reliable broadband and technology and investments in public schools that educate their children. They need help making their rent, paying utility bills and putting food on the table.   

The state’s response is made worse when there is a lack of input from people directly affected by the policy choices — and no chance for any but a few lawmakers to meaningfully contribute to the legislative outcome. It is made worse when the priorities for our states recovery are decided in less than 48 hours.  

The Extra Credit Program provides a case in point. It would send a total of $440 million in checks to families with children  because there is no political will to deploy these resources toward a systemic response that could sustain support in the long-term.

Such an approach flies in the face of what we know works for securing well-being and an economic recovery for all. While that $440 million is less likely to reach those with very low incomes, those struggling the most in this public health and economic crisis, $124 million will go to taxpayers in the top 20%.

Such a policy design in a pandemic would only be pursued by legislative leaders bent on ignoring the realities of the majority of our state’s population who have incomes that aren’t keeping up with the costs of basics.   

Here is what’s at stake today in North Carolina: More than 1 million North Carolinians are at risk of eviction. Nearly 800,000 North Carolinians lack access to affordable health care in a pandemic. More than 1.8 million North Carolinians are behind on utility payments.  More than 1 million people have filed for unemployment.  Our state is failing to comply with the constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every one of the 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools. 

The weak and inadequate response in HB 1105 means that so many North Carolinians and their families who are facing tremendous uncertainty and hardship will continue to struggle without the help that our state should be providing. Putting people first in policy making is what lawmakers are elected to do; unfortunately, yesterday, they chose politics over people.  

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

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