Unspent billions from NC budget stalemate could help in coronavirus fight

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – One possible side effect to North Carolina’s long-running budget staredown: A large chunk of unspent money could help the state as it fights the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

State House Speaker Tim Moore told CBS17.com that more than $2 billion remains unappropriated from the savings reserve and collections.

“Oddly enough, in some ways, the fact that we have a budget stalemate and that we haven’t spent all that money and that we actually have unspent money, may actually be a little bit helpful in the sense that we have money that we can channel and use to deal with some of these critical needs,” the Cleveland County Republican said.

According to the most recent monthly financial report from the State Controller’s Office, the state’s total unreserved cash balance was $2.26 billion at the end of February.

Because lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper have not yet agreed on a budget, state government operations have continued at current funding levels and will do so until a deal is reached.

The state Department of Health and Human Services says it’s better equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic under the existing budget than it would have been under the version passed by lawmakers and vetoed by Cooper.

“Even with COVID-19, when it comes to health and wellbeing, the state is better off with the continuing budget than with the Conference budget,” spokeswoman Kelly Connor said in a statement on behalf of the department.

Republicans failed to override Cooper’s veto of the two-year budget, and the General Assembly is due to return April 28 for its short session. Moore says lawmakers could convene before that if necessary “if there’s anything we can do to deal with things earlier.

“It may not be until April 28 that we even have some idea of what the needs are,” Moore said. “Because this thing’s going to play out for weeks.”

The disease has infected at least 200,000 worldwide with a death toll approaching 10,000, and the response to it threatens to strain state budgets across the country.

“I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of chances after we get past all this – which we will – to go back and look and think about what we should have done in terms of more capacity to test and identify cases early in the community, and maybe more surge capacity if there is a significant outbreak,” said Mark McClellan, the former administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President George W. Bush and the founding director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

“But I think right now we should focus on where do we go from here, to contain any public health consequences of this pandemic and help us get back to recovery as quickly as possible,” he added.

President Donald Trump last week invoked the Stafford Act, which will open up $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak, and earlier this week he signed an aid package that will guarantee sick leave to workers who fall ill.

Moore said lawmakers want to know how much of North Carolina’s allocation will be direct grants, funds that will flow to the state treasury and must be appropriated by the General Assembly or will require matching funds.

“The feds are, by virtue of the fact that this is such a wide-ranging and far-reaching issue, are the lead entity because they’re the only ones that really have the financial ability to do what needs to be done,” Moore said. “We are working with (and) regularly talking with our health care providers, our hospitals, our health departments, finding out what the needs are there.”

According to the United Health Foundation’s most recent “America’s Health Rankings,” North Carolina spent $59 per person on public health in 2019 – the fourth straight year the spending level increased since its 12-year low of $49 in 2015. Still, the state ranked just 42nd in the U.S. The national average was $87 last year after two years at $86.

Those rankings are compiled from data from Trust for America’s Health – a nonprofit, nonpartisan health advocacy group – along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Census Bureau. The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group 21 years ago as a not-for-profit, private foundation.

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