Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed.
Dropped lawsuit: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has dropped his lawsuit against Gov. Roy Cooper over the governor’s COVID-19 executive orders. Josh Stein, N.C attorney general, tweeted the news Thursday, Aug. 13. Forest’s decision not to continue the legal challenge comes shortly after a trial judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction in the case. The lieutenant governor, who is running against Cooper for governor, wanted the court to throw out Cooper’s executive orders shutting down much of the economy. Forest argued Cooper exceeded his authority under the Emergency Management Act and failed to seek concurrence from the Council of State for his orders. Judge James Gale disagreed with Forest’s reasoning.
Virtual charter schools: The Charter School Advisory Board gave its stamp of approval for the state’s two virtual charter schools to expand enrollment. The vote was unanimous. Before the virtual charter schools can enroll more students, the State Board of Education must approve the measure. The expansion would be temporary to help meet demand for a virtual education during the COVID-19 outbreak. “With the school year fast approaching, the SBE should swiftly consider this unanimous recommendation for the thousands of families looking for stability and certainty,” Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said in a news release after the vote. Forest is a member of the state education board.
Opportunity scholarships: The educational fate of more than 11,000 students is in the hands of a judge, two Republican senators warned in a news release Thursday, Aug. 13. Thousands of students rely on N.C. Opportunity Scholarships to attend private school. The N.C. Association of Educators, a left-leaning teachers’ organization, is suing to get rid of the scholarship program. “Children from well-off families can attend whatever school they like,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, said in the news release. “But for 11,259 low- and middle-income kids, the only hope they have of getting the same education is the Opportunity Scholarship program.” The NCAE is trying to jeopardize the education of thousands of children as they’re set to return to school, said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth. It’s now up to a judge to decide whether those 11,259 students will be able to stay in their school of choice, the two senators said.
Friday night lights out: High school football won’t return until February 2021. Blame COVID-19. The N.C. High School Athletic Association board on Tuesday, Aug. 11, approved an amended 2020-21 calendar for high school sports, based on COVID-19 conditions. Basketball will have its first practice Dec. 7, while soccer won’t meet until Jan. 11. The first football practice is scheduled for Feb. 8, 2021. “We believe that this is the best path forward to a safe return to the field,” Que Tucker, NCHSAA commissioner, said in a news release.
Civitas Poll: Gov. Roy Cooper has a 10-point lead over Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in the latest Civitas Institute poll. Harper Polling, on behalf of the right-leaning Civitas Institute, surveyed 600 likely N.C. voters from Aug. 6-10. The margin of error is plus or minus 4%. While 39% of respondents said they would vote for Forest, 49% said they would vote for Cooper, the incumbent. Unlike the gubernatorial race, the presidential race is setting up to be close. Forty-four percent of respondents said they would vote for President Trump, while 45% said they would pick former Vice President Joe Biden. Similarly, the race between U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Democrat challenger Cal Cunningham remains fairly close, with 38% supporting Tillis and 41% supporting Cunningham.
Unemployment benefits: General Assembly leaders traded barbs with Gov. Roy Cooper in a series of letters relating to unemployment assistance. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, sent Cooper a letter urging him to accept President Trump’s offer for additional unemployment aid. The plan sees the federal government providing $300 if the state shares the cost at $100. The General Assembly leaders also called the governor out for the Division of Employment Security’s slow pace in delivering unemployment checks. They criticized the governor for objecting to the president’s decision to use a federal disaster relief account to fund the plan. “That you would accept Disaster Unemployment Assistance in other disasters but object to similar assistance during this disaster only fuels concerns that you may withhold $300 per week to the unemployed so as not to give President Trump credit,” Berger and Moore wrote. In a response, Cooper said his administration had already begun the process to accept the payments. He shot back at Berger and Moore’s criticisms. “Let me be clear. I refuse to let North Carolinians suffer because Congress and the president have been unable to get the job done and you have failed to help the unemployed,” Cooper said. The governor called on legislators to extend the state unemployment benefits to at least 24 weeks and increase the maximum weekly amount to at least $500.
Medicaid expansion: Republican lawmakers clashed with Democrats over Medicaid expansion during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and N.C. Health Choice on Tuesday, Aug. 11. Republicans questioned whether Medicaid expansion would worsen existing provider shortages and state budget problems. Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, argued expansion would bring in more federal funding to North Carolina. Even without expansion, Medicaid’s average enrollment is projected to increase by 8% to 2.39 million patients through 2021, according to NCDHHS. North Carolina can’t cut participants from its Medicaid rolls during the crisis, after the state accepted a 6.2% increase in the federal match rate. The extra federal money saved North Carolina an estimated $500 million and helped its Medicaid program finish the fiscal year 3% under budget. Medicaid transformation is on track to meet the legislature’s new deadline of July 1, 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic threatens that timeline, said Dave Richard, deputy secretary for N.C. Medicaid.
Children’s COVID-19 risk: A doctor told lawmakers that children younger than 10 are significantly less infectious than adults. The data on their risk of virus transmission is “reassuring,” Dr. David Hill from the N.C. Pediatric Society said during the Tuesday, Aug. 11, meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services. That reassurance evaporates for children older than 10. But hospitalization rates are 95% lower for children younger than 18 than for adults. A third of those hospitalized need intensive care, but children face a maximum of a 0.3% mortality rate. Up to 40% of kids don’t show symptoms, Hill said. With schools closed, identifying developmental disabilities or child abuse is more difficult, he said. “Children do not live in isolation. They do need schools, they do need community supports for nutrition,” Hill said. “I think it would be a tragedy to be having an emergency discussion about measles or influenza tearing through our communities.”
Julie Havlak contributed to this story