By Nyamekye Daniel
(The Center Square) – The N.C. General Assembly approved a bill May 2 with a series of policy changes meant to bolster the state amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
The final vote came from the Senate 46-0, in a session where lawmakers changed rule of law orders to allow multiple bill readings in one day. It is one of two bills passed by the legislature to facilitate aid because of the outbreak.
Senate Bill 704 offers tax relief, changes unemployment laws, increases health care flexibility and sets guidelines for state operations with social distancing precautions.
Missing from the bill is a temporary Medicaid expansion to cover COVID-19 prevention and treatment for uninsured North Carolinians.
The bill codifies the unemployment benefit guidelines issued by Gov. Roy Cooper via executive orders, which allow workers who have lost their jobs or hours because of COVID-19 to receive emergency unemployment benefits, remove the one-week waiting period and job-seeking requirements and exempt employers from paying for COVID-19-related claims.
Under SB 704, employers will be able to file a claim on behalf of certain employees every two weeks and earn a full credit against unemployment contributions for their April 30 statements.
The bill also permanently allows unemployed North Carolinians to replace one of their three weekly job-seeking requirements with a re-employment activity offered by a local career center. The change would become effective on July 1.
The measure waives the interest on tax returns for the 2019 tax year because of the April 15 to July 15 filing extension.
SB 704 authorizes the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to use existing occupancy tax proceeds for grants, up to $50,000, for businesses that promote the tourism and hospitality industry.
Also in the bill is a series of guidelines to continue distance learning for K-12 schools. It waives end-of-year testing requirements, school performance grades for the school year and interest charges on outstanding University of North Carolina student debt and tuition, among other things.
SB 704 extends ID and tag expiration deadlines and allows marriage certificates, other notary services and oaths to be issued remotely.
The measure also protects medical personnel and businesses from being sued for certain coronavirus-related claims and allows dentists to test for COVID-19 and pharmacists to administer vaccines, once one becomes available.
The bill will be effective once it is signed into law by Cooper.
Lawmakers also approved May 2 a more than $1.6 billion COIVD-19 recovery spending plan.
If that plan is vetoed, then SB 704 will be repealed. It can automatically be reenacted if the plan’s veto is overridden.
Cooper applauded lawmakers for their work on the legislation.
“These bills were developed collaboratively, and although it’s just a first step, they are the product of a consensus approach that I hope can continue,” Cooper said in a statement. “I will be reviewing them closely and look forward to taking action on them soon.”