U.S. House COVID relief bill is the response North Carolinians need

Today’s passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a comprehensive COVID relief bill is an important step forward. A recovery is still far off, and the greatest risk now is that Congress will do too little, rather than too much. The pandemic has caused widespread financial pain, with people of color often hit the hardest.

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, millions of North Carolinians are struggling to put food on the table, make rent or cover basic expenses. Nationally, at least 10 million children have a family member who is unemployed or who lacks paid work because of the pandemic.

Congress has provided some relief, but it is not enough. While the COVID relief package signed into law in December provided an urgently needed down payment, it left critical needs unmet and allowed some unemployment benefits to expire in mid-March, long before the crisis will end. The greatest risk right now is doing too little, not too much, to address the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, which has left millions out of work and struggling to cover basic expenses, such as food, rent or mortgage, car payments, and medical costs.

North Carolinians need Congress to pass the House relief bill:

Policymakers must move quickly to help families stay afloat and get our nation on track for an economic recovery. Key elements of the House-passed bill that will help struggling people in North Carolina include:

  • Temporarily extending increased SNAP food assistance benefits and the federal eviction moratorium so that people continue to get help putting food on the table and keeping a roof overhead while the economy remains weak
  • Temporarily extending federal pandemic unemployment assistance to better protect unemployed workers
  • Providing housing assistance to help renters keep their homes and emergency assistance to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
  • Financial assistance to help meet urgent household expenses such as utility bills and car payments, delivered through an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for low-paid working adults, temporarily enlarging the Child Tax Credit, and making stimulus payments to individuals and families regardless of their immigration status and including adult dependents
  • Improved access to affordable health coverage through enhanced premium tax credits and a new incentive for holdout states like North Carolina to expand Medicaid
  • Much-needed state and local government fiscal relief, including funds to restore jobs for teachers, firefighters and other critical public employees and prevent further layoffs and cuts to core services like education and health care

The Senate should embrace this plan to provide relief to families and state and local governments and make it even stronger by extending unemployment assistance through September to avoid putting North Carolinians at risk for a lapse in benefits.

We know what works to help our neighbors and communities in North Carolina make it through this pandemic. In the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate must swiftly pass the House COVID relief bill to support the still-weak economy and millions struggling to get through this crisis.

Suzy Khachaturyan is a Policy Analyst at the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Pence podcast could be a real sleeper

In “news that will surprise absolutely no one,” former Vice President Mike Pence has announced he is going to host a podcast. This might have been more exciting a few years ago because, let’s face it, you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting somebody who has their own podcast these days. Go ahead; try it; I’ll wait.

You see, podcasts are like air fryers in that people who like them REALLY like them and they won’t rest until you share their devotion. Sure, one is about grisly unsolved murders and the other is about crispy, low-fat chicken wings but you get where I’m going here.

Pence’s podcast will be sponsored by the makers of mayonnaise, typing paper and thick white underpants. I’m guessing.

Plot twist: The Pence podcast will have a “youthful” spin, owing to its sponsorship by the Young Americans Foundation, a conservative youth organization founded in the ‘60s while everybody else was getting high and painting themselves blue if you can believe the “Dragnet” reruns from that era, which I totally do.

No stranger to radio—Pence hosted a popular syndicated show for many years before getting bitten by the lackey bug– the former veep might need to jazz up his old format because competition among podcasts is Dua Lipa levels of fierce. It will be tough sledding against cult faves like “Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s?” and the decidedly un-Pencelike “Fairy Tales for Unwanted Children.” Popular podcasts tend to be smart, caustic and compelling. Pence will need to fight for listeners with the relentless fervor of, say, a sort of Etsy homemade militia obsessed with hanging him in front of the Capitol. It won’t be easy.

Because I’m a giver, I’d like to help the former vice president in his new career. He’s going to need (forgive me, “mother”) sexy topics to keep listeners coming back for more. When he was on the radio 22 years ago, Pence enjoyed Limbaugh levels of loyalty, but he may need to refresh his brand to reach beyond the almost never coveted “Up With People” demo.

Give the people what they want, Mikey, and show us you’re just like us, only demonstrably less interesting. Trust me, listeners love vulnerability like a Proud Boy loves mispronouncing Ayn Rand’s name.

Episode 1: Have your so-called friends ever left you for dead and, no, I’m not speaking metaphorically? Same.

Episode 2: Why I hate flies.

Episode 3: “You harlot!” What to say when a female co-worker wants to meet with you “at 2 p.m. to review the proposed budget.”

Episode 4: Let’s get back to how everybody I thought was my friend just kinda didn’t care that I WAS NEARLY KILLED.

Episode 5: How to bury the hurt when your employer says your beloved house pets make you look “low class.” Hint: tapioca and keep it coming.

Episode 6: That time I spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to leave a football game before it started. #lackeylife!

Celia Rivenbark is a NYT bestselling author and humor columnist. Write her at [email protected].

NC legislative committee takes yet another misstep on unemployment insurance

This morning, the Finance Committee of the North Carolina House approved House Bill 107, which, among its largely technical provisions, would make two significant changes to state unemployment insurance policy: 

  • it would reinstate work search requirements for individuals making non-COVID-19-related unemployment insurance claims, and 
  • it would hold the base tax rate for employers at just 1.9%, rather than following the planned increase that currently contained in state law. 

The decision to hold employer tax rates at the current low rate is a mistake. 

Back in 2013, when lawmakers and Gov. McCrory approved House Bill 4 — the bill that imposed significant cuts to worker benefits — they also included a trigger that would have raised the State Unemployment Tax Act (SUTA) base tax rate in order to ensure that employer contributions into the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund are sufficient to keep the system solvent — a major priority of legislative leaders.  

At present, North Carolina’s tax rate is the fourth lowest in the country.  

Meanwhile, as national experts, state researchers, and media outlets have repeatedly noted, North Carolina has the least effective unemployment insurance system in the country because it serves too few jobless workers, with too little wage replacement for too short a time. 

A glance at the latest data from the third quarter for southeastern states further demonstrates how our program has fallen behind. North Carolina trails only Florida for the number of people exhausting state unemployment insurance before finding a job, is only barely ahead of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee in the average weekly benefit amount it pays, and in 2019 was worst in the country in terms of the number of jobless workers who receive unemployment insurance.

Engaging in a “race-to-the-bottom” competition with other southeastern states when it comes to supporting the economy is not the right path for our state. If we have any hope of improving what research shows has been a very unequal recovery, North Carolina policymakers should be focused on driving policy toward achieving more equitable outcomes, and be deeply concerned that their policy choices are driving a wedge between people and critical supports. 

Policymakers should instead follow the expert advice of a wide array of economists to build an unemployment insurance system that: a) minimizes the harm to families caused by job losses, and b) stabilizes the economy by helping to maintains consumer spending. 

At present, North Carolina is failing on both counts by maintaining a system that: 

  • provides 14 fewer weeks than the standard 26 weeks of state benefits, 
  • pays extremely low benefits that, on average provide just 23 cents per dollar of the average worker’s in prior wages (the national standard is at least 50 cents), and 
  • reaches less than 9% of those who are jobless, compared to the standard of reaching at least 50 percent of the unemployed. 

A broken unemployment insurance system increases hardship, worsens health outcomes, reduces lifelong earnings and economic mobility for people, and doesn’t do enough to stabilize consumer spending — a key to supporting demand for goods and services of businesses (i.e. employers) and supporting economic recovery.?The National Employment and Law Project noted that due to its shorter benefit duration alone, a typical North Carolina jobless worker could have received as much as $24,000 less in unemployment insurance benefits over the course of the last recession thanks to the 2013 cuts. 

The bottom line: this legislation ignores the desperate need to repair and improve the system for jobless workers (click here for a list of simple and necessary policy changes that lawmakers should enact in 2021) and, indeed, erects another barrier by reviving administratively costly work search requirements. 

By keeping employer taxes low while refusing?to improve things for workers and their families, lawmakers have signaled that working people will continue to be an afterthought in legislative policymaking and are doubling down on an economic approach that will continue to serve us all poorly. 

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


Hope grows for ousting DeJoy from Postal Service leadership position

Louis DeJoy

There was progress yesterday in the effort to remove Greensboro’s Louis DeJoy from his position as U.S. Postmaster General. As several media outlets — including the New York Times have reported, President Biden has nominated three new members to the Postal Service board of governors. It’s hoped and expected by the legions of DeJoy critics that this move will shift the balance of power on the board and enable it to find a new leader.

DeJoy, of course, is an arch-conservative businessman and Trump supporter (and husband of former North Carolina HHS secretary Aldona Wos) who has come under fire for numerous moves that have been seen to undermine the USPS. This is from the Times report:

The Postal Service catapulted to the national spotlight last summer amid nationwide slowdowns that coincided with operational changes instituted by Mr. DeJoy, raising fears ahead of the election about vote-by-mail delays. Democrats accused Mr. DeJoy, a supporter of President Donald J. Trump, of trying to undercut mail balloting at a time when Mr. Trump was also promoting a false narrative that it was rife with fraud.

But Mr. DeJoy has also drawn fire for continued delivery problems since the election, as the Postal Service struggles to find a sounder financial footing.

Let’s hope the new Biden appointees are seated quickly and take swift action. As columnist Paul Waldman writes in the Washington Post this morning:

To refresh your memory, DeJoy, a Republican mega-donor with no experience in the USPS, was appointed to lead the agency in the spring of 2020, despite having been beset by allegations of abusive practices at his business, conflicts of interest and potential campaign finance law violations. This came after President Donald Trump had spent years attacking the Postal Service.

DeJoy quickly took steps, supposedly in the service of cost-cutting, that had the effect of slowing down mail delivery. You probably noticed it.

After exploring the competing views of DeJoy’s actions and noting that here is bipartisan agreement regarding the need to upgrade the Postal Service, Waldman puts it this way:

“Although there does exist a progressive agenda with regard to the Postal Service (including the revival of postal banking) that Republicans will oppose, a well-functioning USPS that provides efficient service at affordable costs is something almost everyone agrees on. And it’s obvious that DeJoy is a polarizing figure whose continued leadership of the agency is going to only make everything harder.

So surely there are other experienced and qualified candidates out there who aren’t party donors and who could do a better job of reviving the USPS without being partisan lightning rods. If the Biden administration engineers it so DeJoy is replaced with someone like that, everyone ought to be happy.

Fingers crossed.

Editorial raises raft of good questions about bill to mandate school reopening

In case you missed it, be sure to check out yesterday’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com: “Bill requiring in-person learning relies on luck not reality. Needs more work.”

The impetus for the editorial, of course, is Senate Bill 37 — the legislation recently sent by the General Assembly to Governor Cooper that would mandate all school districts to return to in-person instruction. As the editorial notes, the bill is but the latest in a long line of maddening actions by Republican legislative leaders that: a) ignores the obvious imperative of negotiating controversial legislation with the executive branch, and b) imposes a mandate from Raleigh that hypocritically ignores the idea of local control that the GOP long championed before assuming power a decade ago.

Perhaps more importantly, the editorial notes, the bill raises several important practical questions, including:

  • Why are public charter schools excluded?
  • How are schools going to provide the additional space needed to accommodate a safe in-classroom environment?
  • How are schools going to pay for substitute teachers to replace those who cannot be in the classroom because of COVID-19 exposure or other related matters?
  • What needs to be done to meet necessary space requirements for in-school meals? Already, we’re learning that some schools are considering rules that could have kids sitting on the floor to eat meals.
  • Can all of this be assured when schools would be required to implement the mandate – around March 15?
  • Why isn’t there a requirement, and necessary funding, to make sure there is a nurse or other health professional, on-site at each open school?

It also specifies several specific actions that need to be in place before reopening is mandated:

  • There must be required frequent and regular COVID-19 screening of students and school personnel to quickly identify coronavirus outbreaks and deal with them before they become a crisis.
  • Teachers and other appropriate school personnel, including bus drivers, required to work in classroom settings must be vaccinated as soon as possible.
  • Provisions must be added for appropriate facilities for safely serving in-school meals. Mandating students sit on the floor, on the ground, or outdoors in cold or inclement weather is not acceptable.
  • All health and safety precautions must be in place for necessary social distancing and personal protective equipment needs to be available in the classroom and in all other school-related activities.

The bottom line: Just about everyone — Gov. Roy Cooper included — wants kids and educators to get back to school safely. But as the editorial rightfully observes, merely commanding it — without doing the hard, detailed work that’s necessary to facilitate it — is a lousy idea.

Click here to read the entire editorial.