Gov. Cooper proposes increase in unemployment benefits, expansion of Medicaid

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WECT) – Gov. Roy Cooper is requesting an increase in the amount and duration of unemployment benefits in North Carolina.

While presenting his budget recommendations Wednesday, Cooper proposed increasing unemployment benefits from $350 a week for 12 weeks to $500 a week for 24 weeks.

“In North Carolina, it has once again exposed our unemployment benefits for the meager bottom of the country payments they are,” Cooper said. “Our unemployment trust fund sits at just over $3 billion. Yet we rank very low in the list of states in amount of benefits and dead last in the number of weeks people are paid. We can fix this while still budgeting responsibly.

“I propose increasing the maximum benefit to $500 a week and extending the duration to 24 weeks. We can do this and still keep our trust fund over $2 billion, while stopping the automatic cost increase to businesses.”

Cooper also is pushing for an expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina.

“North Carolina is one of only 12 states that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid – even Indiana did it when Vice President Mike Pence was their governor,” Cooper said. “As people find themselves suddenly without a job, underemployed, without the health care they counted on, we have a solution. Expanding Medicaid can help hundreds of thousands of working North Carolinians get health care when they need it most.

“Taking care of people’s health during a global pandemic shouldn’t be a question. We can expand Medicaid right now if the legislature would agree. Though it’s been overdue for years, there’s never been a better time or greater need to do the right thing.”

As part of the proposal, Cooper also is proposing a one-time bonus for school employees:

  • A one-time $2,000 bonus to K-12 public school teachers, instructional support personnel, principals and assistant principals
  • A one-time $1,000 bonus to K-12 non-certified public school personnel
  • A one-time $1,500 bonus to UNC System and NC Community College System personnel

Cooper also laid out the following recommendations for the state’s more than $900 million remaining in Coronavirus Reliefs Funds from the federal CARES Act:

  • $175 million for public health services including: $25 million for testing and tracing; $50 million to target rural and historically marginalized populations; and $40 million for early childhood services
  • $49 million to build a state strategic stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • $132 million to help K-12 public schools to protect students, teachers and staff and ensure students most impacted by COVID-19 receive support
  • $200 million in aid for local governments
  • $50 million to establish an emergency grant program to expand high-speed internet access
  • $27.5 million to combine with other funds to create a $50 million relief program to support NC businesses with rent, mortgage and utility relief
  • $18 million to combine with other funds to create a $33 million grant program for Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUB) that have been left out of other support programs
  • $25 million to provide equipment for health care and first responder workforce programs at community colleges to continue the state’s pipeline of necessary, qualified workers
  • $25 million to research obstacles to reliable, rapid COVID-19 testing
  • $50 million in direct aid to food banks, emergency feeding organizations, and community organizations for food and nutrition assistance

A group of Republican senators responded to Cooper’s budget proposal by saying it ignored warning by nonpartisan fiscal experts.

“This ‘spend now, pray later’ budget strategy resulted in teacher salary cuts and layoffs when the last Democratic governor tried it. The Governor is ignoring warnings from nonpartisan budget experts so he can produce a four-months-late budget proposal that reads more like a prop from an episode of ‘Veep,’” Harry Brown (R-Onslow), Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston), and Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) said in a joint statement.

The governor’s recommended budget adjustments below:

Here are Cooper’s prepared statements on the budget proposal:

The budget I propose takes on the challenges of today while building for the promise of tomorrow. We have to rise to the occasion of this pandemic response now and focus on ways to emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

This budget includes recommendations for investing remaining federal coronavirus money to fight COVID-19 and relieve the financial stress it’s causing. It lays out a plan for responsibly using state dollars to support a vision that’s even better on the other side of this crisis.

This pandemic has not concealed our weaknesses, it has exposed them. It’s good that our state has more than $900 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Fund money that we can invest wisely to fight this virus and tackle these weaknesses head on.

I propose $175 million for critical public health services. This money would go toward testing, tracing, prevention, mental health support and increasing access and help in underserved communities. It would expand early childhood services and provide assistance for aging adults.

For too long, public health has gone without the resources it needs – a problem that is front and center at a time like this. I also propose an additional $49 million to develop a state stockpile of personal protective equipment so we can ensure we are always prepared.

In the wake of COVID-19, perhaps nothing has changed as much as our schools. My budget proposes $132 million for our K-12 public schools so North Carolina can continue educating children effectively through these difficult times.

The budget would support at-risk students, get more people connected to technology and provide protective equipment to keep students and educators safe. And there is additional funding in my budget for our community colleges and universities as well.

Whether you’re a student or small business owner, access to high-speed internet has never been more important. I propose a $50 million investment in expanded access to this critical infrastructure – on top of the tens of millions we’re already investing to increase access.

North Carolina innovation – from companies large and small – will continue powering our economy through this tough time. Helping our small businesses survive and thrive right now will spark our local economies and keep many North Carolinians employed.

My proposal includes $27.5 million for a small business rent, mortgage and utility support program and another $18 million to support historically underutilized businesses that we know have been left out too many times.

States and local governments still need help from Washington, even as we’re putting this final block of funding to good use for North Carolina. But more is needed, and Congress and the President must set politics aside to do what’s right for the country as we weather this storm.

In addition to the federal COVID funding, my budget outlines a responsible investment in North Carolina using state dollars and a bond proposal that will move our state forward to a brighter future for all of our families.

We can take advantage of historically low interest rates by passing a bond, and I’ve proposed a health care infrastructure bond to improve the delivery of care and support vaccine development in our state.

A second $4.3 billion bond that people would vote on in 2021 would invest in schools, higher education, water & sewer infrastructure and affordable housing. Each $1 million of investment sustains or creates up to 13 jobs directly and 28 jobs indirectly.

I know many parents out there who have become homeschool teacher assistants out of necessity. They value our teachers even more than before. We cannot continue leaving teachers behind but expecting them to lead the way for our children.

Today, I propose a $2,000 bonus for teachers and principals, and a $1,000 bonus for school support staff. Many educators were left out this year when it comes to raises. I’m also proposing a $1,500 bonus to community college and university employees who didn’t get raises either.

Through ordinary and extraordinary times, we ask a lot of our educators. We trust them with helping us grow the leaders of tomorrow. Let’s put our money where our trust is.

COVID-19 is a health crisis that has caused a unique economic challenge. In North Carolina, it has once again exposed our unemployment benefits for the meager bottom of the country payments they are.

Our unemployment trust fund sits at just over $3 billion. Yet we rank very low in the list of states in amount of benefits and dead last in the number of weeks people are paid. We can fix this while still budgeting responsibly.

I propose increasing the maximum benefit to $500 a week and extending the duration to 24 weeks. We can do this and still keep our trust fund over $2 billion, while stopping the automatic cost increase to businesses.

This money goes right back into our local economies, supporting businesses in every community. People are hurting right now. This pandemic has knocked them out of work and left them with few options. Helping the unemployed is what this trust fund is for, so let it do some work.

Finally, I’ll end on an item that actually won’t cost our state treasury anything. But it’s perhaps the most important decision we can make right now to save lives, protect people’s health, boost our economy with federal dollars and save our rural hospitals. Medicaid expansion.

North Carolina is one of only 12 states that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid – even Indiana did it when Vice President Mike Pence was their governor.

As people find themselves suddenly without a job, underemployed, without the health care they counted on, we have a solution. Expanding Medicaid can help hundreds of thousands of working North Carolinians get health care when they need it most.

Think of it this way – as we fight this coronavirus, what could be more important than ensuring our neighbors, daycare teachers, restaurant workers, small business employees and more have health care? Being able to see a doctor when you’re sick shouldn’t be a luxury.

Taking care of people’s health during a global pandemic shouldn’t be a question. We can expand Medicaid right now if the legislature would agree. Though it’s been overdue for years, there’s never been a better time or greater need to do the right thing.

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.

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