Rep. Graig Meyer 2/4/21 Legislative Update


N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer 2/4/21 behind-the-scenes Legislative Update video

Now that the NCGA is back in session, I’m hoping to record a weekly Facebook Live Legislative Update on Thursday afternoons, with a behind-the-scenes look at my week in Raleigh, and take your questions about what I and my fellow legislators are working on.  Please join me on my Facebook page for these, or read on for the transcript below.

Today on my Facebook Live broadcast, we talked about whether we should reopen schools?  I have a lot to say about that without any easy answers.  We also talked about what we at the legislature are doing on COVID relief. We did some legislation on that today.

Both of these issues are big. So bear with me as we dive into all of this. I do want to start with a quick “Good News” update. The N.C. House of Representatives today passed a bill to help all the bars and restaurants that have been shuttered or at limited capacity – I’ve been working with a lot of those local folks – and the House passed a bill that will delay the need to renew their ABC permits until 90 days after the executive orders expire that limit their business, and allows them to apply for refunds for last year’s ABC permit. So this is a little way the state can help those businesses – to not have to pay for those expensive permits when people haven’t been able to be in business and make much money. I’ve talked to a lot of local restaurant and bar owners, but if you want to spread the word that it has passed the House, and is going over to the Senate. I’m pretty sure it’ll pass there. I hope so, but you might want to talk to your senators to encourage them to pass it.

Let’s talk about COVID – COVID relief. We did today in the House, pass a relief bill that now the House and Senate have passed, and now it goes to the governor, that takes federal money that we got from Congress and appropriates it for needs in the states. And there’s a lot of good stuff in here. One thing that made me laugh was that the Republicans today crowed about how, ‘We should all feel good about this bipartisan bill.’  And I thought, ‘This is all the stuff that the Democrats in Congress negotiated for, that the States get to distribute – this isn’t like the Republicans did all this out of the goodness of their heart – you got this because the Democratic Congress passed this as soon as they took over the majority.’
But it was really great to be able to do some good work for people, and to work across party lines for a unanimous vote here. So what’s in this COVID relief bill: One:  If you are a family that was supposed to get the North Carolina $335 check last year, but you didn’t get it because there was a software glitch – you’re going to be able to get that now. Unfortunately, we still leave out the people who make too little money to be able to to pay income taxes at all, and so they’re not getting this benefit, but we will be able to help some folks. I wish we were helping the poor. Two: There’s $39 million for rural broadband. None of that’s going to be for my district, but that will help a lot of places around the state. Three: There’s $95 million for vaccine distribution. Four: There’s $546,000 for housing and utility assistance, which is great. And then there’s a giant chunk – $1.6 billion for schools. And that money has some general purpose guidelines, but school districts will be able to use it for a lot of purposes. The big one is going to be for addressing learning loss, maybe extending the school year or providing special assistance to students who haven’t been able to access a lot of learning, but it can also be used for some facilities; it could be used for HVAC systems or other things that you need to make a healthy school place.

So that was good news. Here in my district, Caswell County is going to get $3.1 million, Orange County $3.8 million and Chapel Hill schools, $3.5 million. Those amounts were determined by the feds based on Title One eligibility status.

The legislature will be doing another COVID bill with discretionary money in the next couple of weeks. The governor is going to be announcing a COVID proposal today. So you may hear that the governor is going to propose a lot of good things, including pretty sizable bonuses for teachers, university and community college employees who didn’t get any type of raise or bonus in the last two years because of the budget stalemate. And so I hope that my Republican colleagues will be able to support that.

Here’s what Democrats are going to fight for:
We have over $4 billion unappropriated funds in the state budget because we didn’t have a budget for the last two years, plus some federal money. We could be using this right now to help people. And, here’s what we think we should do.

  • We think that we should help people who get sick and their healthcare workers – taking care of the health care needs created by COVID.
  • We should be helping small business owners and their employees. And specifically here, I think we need to target those neighborhood businesses that have been forced to have limited access like a restaurant or like a music venue because they haven’t been able to have crowds inside because of the executive orders.
  • We should also be helping people hit with hunger and home and housing needs.
  • We should be doing some more for food banks and other programs that help those.
  • We should be addressing educators and their students.
  • And then we should be helping people who are unemployed and currently looking for work. We have another $2.5 billion, on top of what I already mentioned, in our Unemployment Trust Fund. Most COVID unemployment has been paid for by the federal government. And so we could be using some of this money to extend North Carolina benefits and pay more. And we believe that we should extend our benefits from the current limit, which is 16 weeks right now, to 26 weeks, which is close to the national average. And we should increase the maximum weekly benefit from $350 to $500. We’ve got the money. It’s the least we could do. I don’t know that we’re going to see a tougher rainy day than the one we’re in right now. So those are the things we’re going to be advocating for over the next few weeks as we do more COVID relief.

So the big debate right now is, Should we force schools to reopen or not? The Senate passed their proposed bill today, along mostly partisan lines – a couple of Democrats joined the Republicans to pass that bill – that the Republicans did not accept any amendments to. The bill is problematic. The bill doesn’t have any release valve for shutting schools back down if we have a major outbreak, so that seems not responsive to the reality that we’re in with new COVID variants coming, et cetera. It also mandates a Plan A option, which basically means that all students can be in the classrooms full time.

If everyone took advantage of that, you’re going to end up with classrooms that are going to be so full, that you can’t really pursue schools with social distancing ability. It also says that schools must have a Plan B option for kids who want to come part-time and that families that don’t want their kids to go to school should still be allowed to have remote learning. So it’s basically saying, ‘Schools, you have to offer everything, but you can’t shut down if things get really bad.’

And I don’t know that Plan A options work right now, but I do really think that we should be getting kids the option to go back to school if their families want them to go back to school, because they’ve been out for so long and the equity issues are so huge. And I understand all of the voices of frustration that I’m hearing from parents in my email box and phone calls about what this year has been like and how your kids are falling behind. And I understand the frustration of teachers about the likelihood of having to go back in difficult and potentially unsafe conditions and the way that teachers always get dumped on. And there are many pieces of this bill that are just really hard to figure out and really ugly. And I don’t know what I’m going to do on the bill because I don’t like it in its current form, but I think there are some things that we could do to try and improve it when it comes over to the House next week.

Here are a few things that I think that we should think about as we think about reopening schools. And then I want to talk about a few things where I think we can do this the right way if we get those things right.  I recognize that people are running hot on this issue on both sides, and I’m getting lots of communication. And so bear with me friends – it is very tough.

The first thing that makes this so tough is that in the vote today this issue was Democrats versus Republicans. But in the public dialogue, say within my district, this issue right now has become parents versus teachers. And I don’t like being in the middle of a parents versus teachers debate because I am a public school parent. And I work with schools outside of the general assembly, and have been a public school educator. And it’s like tearing those two sides of myself apart in the middle of a debate like this. But I think that in a lot of ways, this is an issue where we need to think about it, not in partisan terms, but in community terms and to try not to have parents versus teachers, but that is surely the way that it is going.  I’m hearing it from both sides – I’m hearing that type of division and anger at each other.

Second, the big ask from teachers is, ‘Can we be vaccinated first?’ And ideally I would say, yes, I would love for teachers to be vaccinated before we go back to school and potentially take the teachers in a Group Three-A, where as soon as we get to Group Three, say teachers and law enforcement officers could get at the front of that group and the counties would be ready to vaccinate them. The challenge of that is – and this is the second thing that nobody’s talking about – is that we don’t know how soon we’re going to get there. If you look at the current rate of distribution of vaccines, we won’t get to that point until probably April or May.  And if you want teachers to get two vaccines before they go back, then we are going to end up in a place where you’re not going to be able to have schools reopened until very close to the end of the school year. And so that timing seems difficult to me.

The other choice is you say, ‘Well, let’s move teachers up and vaccinate them.’ Now, some counties, I understand, have done that. Here in Orange County, we could do that, but we would be breaking the protocol that currently has people over 65 getting vaccinated. And the trade-off here, the public health trade-off, is people over 65 are more likely to die from COVID than younger people, even younger people who are working out in the working world; and teachers who aren’t in school right now for the most part, but people who are out in the working world who are in the same age range as teachers, they’re less likely to die, even if they’re working, than people over 65.

So what do you want to do? Do you want to save the lives of the people over 65? Or do you want to get kids back in school? It’s a really, really difficult public health and public policy situation to be in. And I think the devil is in the details, and the legislature is going to have to make a tough decision, and so are our local school districts.

The third thing that we’re not talking about is how this plays out where what the impact is, that we’re not in school right now. And this is what I mean by that – I think there are aspects of this that we’re not talking about. For example, we’re not acknowledging that there ARE kids in schools right now in the schools that are open, and every early childhood center, mostly, is open.

And those teachers who make less than public school teachers have been providing early childhood care. And you’ve got kids who would be in school, but instead they’re at the local community center, the YMCA or somewhere, and they’re being cared for by low wage workers. And so we’ve essentially got this ad hoc system where kids are being cared for by people who aren’t very well paid, where normally they’d be in school. And I don’t like the equity issues that that creates – of having low wage workers get dumped on – just like I don’t like teachers getting dumped on.

Teachers, I think, have put out there very clearly what their concerns are about doing this with health and safety. And I agree that we should do this in a safe and healthy way. I think that when you put those last two things together – the lack of vaccine and what we know about how child-friendly environments can work safely – I think that we have to look for some in-between approach where some teachers might have to go back. And nobody’s saying that, really clearly, except for the sponsors of this bill, but some teachers might have to go back and some teachers might be able to stay out because they’ve got a pre-existing condition or something like that – and we broaden the number of kids who are going to be able to go back to school.

The GOP is right on some of these things too. They are right that students’ mental health challenges are up during this period, and child abuse and neglect reports are down. I don’t think it’s because child abuse and neglect is down, I think it’s because they’re just not getting seen by other adults outside of their family. There’s a significant percentage of kids who aren’t participating in school at all, and we’re losing those kids.  And there’s a larger than I’d like to admit number of parents who are putting their kids into charter schools and private schools that are open. And they may never come back to public schools.

On the other hand, the public school friends and teachers are right, that if we put teachers in dangerous situations, we’re going to take the already low morale of teachers and make it worse. And how are we going to continue to staff schools if we keep doing more and more and more bad things to teachers?

So what do I think?

I think we should give teachers some sort of vaccine priority and have a plan for vaccinating every teacher. I think that law enforcement officers need the same thing. I think that we should follow the public health guidance on how to do this in schools. I don’t think that we should mandate Plan A options, I think that the bill should be restricted and say that if we’re going to have schools open, that they have to do it in Plan B – they can do it Plan A when it’s safe, which may include vaccines, but we’re not there yet. I think that we could put in place an exemption for teachers that have preexisting health conditions so that they are not in the double whammy of already having those and then being exposed to COVID at school. And I think that we could take some of the COVID money to pay more for substitutes, to get more people to sub, or to hire back some teachers.  Although there’s been some proposals, like ‘Let’s put a nurse in every school’ – that – I just don’t know how we would do feasibly because we don’t have enough nurses to do that.  We don’t have enough teachers, to have a full set of teachers teaching remote instruction and a full set teaching in-person instruction. So there’re no easy answers to all of these things.

I will continue to listen to what my constituents are saying about this. And I would ask you to be patient, as we figure out what can we negotiate into the bill as it comes through the House next week. Right now the emails we are receiving are about 50% support reopening and 50% don’t do it until teachers get vaccinated. And I’ll continue to listen to people and see if we can find some middle ground.

Now to answer some of the questions in the Facebook comments:

Will students be required to have a COVID vaccine in order to attend school?  I think the answer to that is clearly no, because we don’t have a vaccine protocol for children under 16, because the clinical trials on kids haven’t been done.

Will teacher bonuses be given to the teachers that received the $300 bonus in the fall? Yes. Then under the governor’s proposal, it would go to all public school employees, all community college employees and all university system employees. But that’s the governor’s proposal, which would have to get through the legislature.

What were some of the proposed amendments on the bill today? The Senate Democrats tried to make an amendment to have more money for special education teachers so that when you’re in those environments, where they have to work closely one-on-one with students that are in small groups, that they’re able to shrink those groups a little bit more. Basically they were trying to make investments in schools’ health and safety, and the Republicans answer to all of them was, ‘We just passed this COVID relief bill yesterday. They don’t need more money. They should just spend the money that we appropriated yesterday.’ And that’s a tough thing to counter argue. I think in the House, we probably won’t try appropriations amendments. We’ll probably try and making the policies a little bit better on this. That would be my guess.

Why have teachers been vaccinated in other counties and not in Orange? The reason for that is that counties can, the County health departments can, make some local changes to the vaccination distribution system after they get their allocation. And other counties have decided to prioritize teachers. And we haven’t done that in Orange County. That is something that as legislators, we have told our local school boards that they can advocate for with the County health department and the County commissioners.

What do we need to do to get more large vaccination events? What we need to get more large vaccination events is we need more vaccine.  Right now, the vaccine supplies that we’re getting from the feds are not even meeting the County level demand.  And we can’t take away from the County systems that have been set up, to create these huge vaccination events, until we get a larger supply. I’m very hopeful that the Biden administration will speed up supply, but we can’t.

Has there been any movement on improved rural broadband? Yes, there’s been a lot of movement on rural broadband. We’ve got broad bi-partisan support, I think, for spending more money on rural broadband, which is great. The feds have also now released their maps for some of the grants that they are going to be spending money on for rural broadband. And so let me let me come back to that in another session when we’ve got some good rural broadband legislation, and I’ll give you an update on that when we get an idea of what we’re going to do.

Preview of Next Week: We may see the beginnings of another COVID relief bill with some of the money that we have available. I talked a little bit about that earlier. I’m going to be working behind the scenes in talking to Republicans about a couple of issues related to policing and mental health. One, on how do we take mental health interventions in the community off of the hands of police and the second one related to involuntary commitments, and how do we treat people who have been involuntarily committed respectfully and helpfully without having to engage police with them. Those are both complex issues. I’m also working more on rural broadband; a couple of elections issues; and talking to lots of Republicans about how can we extend the school year, so that kids who have missed a lot of learning have the ability to make some of it up over the summer, and about what are we thinking about for next year’s calendar for schools? How do we make up for all this time that we’ve lost?

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  AND I welcome you to join me on Thursday afternoons LIVE on my Facebook page, where you can hear this update and ask me your questions.