BY ROY COOPER
RALEIGH — This pandemic has affected every corner of our state, including our state budget needs. For many families, it has also shifted their priorities. Last week, I proposed a budget that tackles the challenges we’re facing today while building for the promise of tomorrow. We can emerge from this crisis even stronger than before if we invest wisely.
My budget, “Support for a Determined North Carolina,” uses the state’s remaining $900 million CARES Act funding to continue responding to COVID-19 and providing relief to communities. I’ve proposed allocating $175 million for critical public health services, including contact tracing and testing, which are keys to beating this virus.
We know COVID-19 hasn’t affected communities equally. To address the disparate impacts of this virus, I recommend $50 million for testing and treatment efforts in our rural and underserved communities and $18 million for a grant program to help Historically Underutilized Businesses that have been left out of other support programs.
Keeping our schools safe has been a top priority even before this pandemic started, and now it’s even more important. To help schools that are using a mix of in-person learning, I’m proposing $132 million to provide resources to protect students, teachers and staff, and ensure that students most impacted by COVID-19 receive the support they need.
Too many children learning remotely don’t have the internet access they need to be successful. To help them — plus small business owners and people seeking telehealth services — $50 million would be used for a grant program to expand internet access to places that need it.
This pandemic not only has been tough on students and educators, but the parents who’ve become homeschool teaching assistants. They appreciate our teachers more than ever. We cannot continue leaving teachers behind while expecting them to lead the way for our children.
I’m proposing a one-time $2,000 bonus to K-12 public school teachers and administrators along with a one-time $1,000 bonus to public school support personnel. Most of them got no raises in the last budget session.
My budget recommendation also lays the foundation for a stronger future by taking advantage of historically low interest rates to improve the state’s health care infrastructure and invest in our public schools, water and sewer systems and affordable housing.
I know a lot of people are hurting because of the economic impacts of this pandemic, with thousands unemployed or unable to safely return to work. My budget proposes $27.5 million to help North Carolina business owners with rent, mortgage and utility relief. But we can do more to help those unemployed, too.
North Carolina provides some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country and is dead last in the number of benefit weeks available. That’s shameful. My proposal would increase the maximum weekly benefit to $500 and double the duration of available benefits from 12 to 24 weeks. When people use these benefits to purchase food and other necessities, that money goes back into their community, reigniting our local economies and helping small businesses stay open.
But perhaps the most important thing we can do right now to protect people’s health and boost our economy is something that requires no additional state dollars — Medicaid expansion.
A lot of North Carolinians have lost their jobs and, in turn, their health insurance. Our rural hospitals — many of which were already cash-strapped before this pandemic hit — are struggling to cover the costs of uninsured patients.
We are one of only 12 states that hasn’t done this yet. Even Indiana expanded Medicaid when Vice President Mike Pence was governor. Taking care of people’s health during a global pandemic shouldn’t be a question.
When the legislature returns this week, they should expand Medicaid to cover 600,000 North Carolinians and use my budget proposal as a guide for fighting COVID-19 and coming out of this crisis even stronger on the other side.
In hard times, North Carolinians have shown that we bounce back. But that’s not by chance. It’s because we are determined. Determined to tough it out. To help each other, and leave no one behind. Determined to turn our obstacles into opportunities.
I know that we can move through this tough time, with more access to health care, stronger schools, and a thriving economy. And we will because North Carolinians will never give up.
Roy Cooper is the governor of North Carolina.