The General Assembly returned to Raleigh last week primarily to decide how to spend nearly $1 billion dollars in remaining federal COVID-19 relief money which must be spent by December 30 or be lost. Almost one half of the money ($440 million) was allocated to provide parents of children 17 and younger a $335 stimulus check to help offset costs associated with remote learning by schools. Among other spending priorities, the bill includes funds to provide increased unemployment benefits ($137 million); $72 million for additional PPE (personal protective equipment); $21 million for improved internet connectivity for students; $45 million to continue the state’s small business job-protection grant program; and $237 million for improved COVID-related state operations.
In addition to appropriating money, SB 1105 (Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0) also includes several provisions requested by NCHBA brought about by the COVID-19 crisis. These provisions were previously enacted in a law passed in early May (SB 704; S.L. 2020-3) but either expired or are about to do so. They are:
- Reextend Certain Local Government Approvals Affecting the Development of Real Property—The earlier “permit extension” law was scheduled to expire on September 28, 2020. This provision, in almost identical wording to the prior law, automatically extends the duration of development approvals (e.g., building permit, erosion and sedimentation control plan, plats and plans, etc.) for an additional 120 days beyond the expiration date of the original approval. In order to qualify for this extension, the original development approval must be “current and valid at any point during the period beginning September 2, 2020, and ending 30 days after Executive Order 116 [Declaration of Emergency because of COVID-19] is rescinded”. Any development approval which was extended as a result of the earlier law should be eligible for this extension for an additional 120 days. This section becomes effective when the Governor signs the bill into law and expires 30 days after Executive Order 116 is rescinded.
- Reallow Licensed Soil Scientists to Evaluate, Inspect, and Approve On-Site Wastewater System Projects During the Coronavirus Emergency—This provision is identical in wording to the prior law which expired on August 1, 2020. As the title indicates, it allows a licensed soil scientist to perform all of the reviews, inspections, certifications and approvals (including the final inspection and report) for the construction, installation, and operation of a proposed wastewater system. The prior law has proven very popular with builders in counties where there is a local backlog because the health departments have been consumed with COVID-related duties. This provision becomes effective when the Governor signs the bill into law and expires 90 days after Executive Order 116 is rescinded. However, the expiration of this section shall not prevent a licensed soil scientist from completing a proposed wastewater system begun before this section expires.
- Reauthorize State Agencies to Exercise Regulatory Flexibility During the Coronavirus Emergency—This provision is likewise identical in wording to the prior law which expired on August 1, 2020. It permits state agencies to exercise regulatory flexibility to, among other things, “delay the collection or fees, fines or late payments…delay the renewal dates of permits, licenses, and other similar certifications, registrations, authorizations…delay or modify any educational or examination requirements…” As an example, the North Carolina Licensing Board for General Contractors utilized the prior authority to allow “virtual” instruction in lieu of in-person continuing education instruction. This section become effective when the Governor signs the bill into law, is retroactive to August 1, 2020, and expires 30 days after Executive Order 116 is rescinded or March 31, 2021, whichever is earlier.
As noted above, the bill provides resources for additional unemployment compensation assistance due to the COVID crisis. NCHBA was one of the leaders of the business coalition which successfully lobbied for the enactment of significant reforms of the unemployment compensation system in 2013. Those reforms allowed North Carolina employers, in record time, to repay a $2.5 billion debt to the federal government which arose because of benefits paid to the unemployed during the Great Recession and to build a healthy surplus. This was accomplished due to a combination of a special surcharge on employers and a reduction of benefits amounts and duration to employees in order to more closely align our state’s benefits with those of our neighboring states.
Unemployment caused by the current crisis has renewed calls on the left for a reversal of these reforms. Recently, the Governor urged the General Assembly to tap into the Unemployment Trust Fund to provide higher weekly benefits and longer duration for those benefits. Our business coalition responded by urging the General Assembly not to undo the earlier reforms and to protect the Unemployment Trust Fund.
We are pleased to report that our coalition was successful in doing just that. The General Assembly allocated $50 million in federal CARES Act money to fund the 25% state match to provide a $300 per week benefit from federal FEMA funds to extend the unemployment supplement provided by the federal government. However, these funds are expected to be exhausted in three weekly payments retroactive to claims filed in August.
The General Assembly also appropriated $87 million in CARES Act money to fund a temporary $50 increase in weekly benefits for claims filed for weeks beginning after September 5, 2020, and ending on December 26, 2020. If the $87 million is expended before then, the General Fund—not the Trust Fund– will be responsible for the deficit. Thus, the healthy balance remaining in the Trust Fund will not be adversely impacted. This is important to employers because if the balance of the Trust Fund is reduced below $1 billion, the special employer surcharge is again triggered.
HB 1105 passed the Senate last Wednesday by a vote of 44-5 and the House last Thursday by a vote of 104-10. Governor Cooper signed the bill into law over the weekend even though his priorities for many of the spending items are clearly different than those of the legislative majority.