(The Center Square) – Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed spending $1.2 billion to expand internet access and issuing additional grants to North Carolina parents with the state's latest round of federal COVID-19 relief.
Cooper rolled out his proposal May 19 for how to spend $5.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding. His plan also includes more money for education, businesses, medical research, local governments and tribal communities.
"This pandemic brought us a once-in-a-generation challenge, and these funds have brought us a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Cooper said. "North Carolina's funding from the American Rescue Plan positions our state for a shared recovery and allows us to create a North Carolina that works for all."
North Carolina received more than $16 billion to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic through the American Rescue Plan, state legislators said. The federal measure was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. State lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would allocate more than $6 billion in pass-through federal grants for education, child care, public health, long-term care, food benefits and housing and rental assistance. More than $3 billion also is earmarked for local governments.
The state will receive $5.7 billion in direct funding. About $5.4 billion must be spent on fiscal relief, and $277 million was set aside for critical capital projects. State Budget Director Charlie Perusse said the state received half of the fiscal relief funds May 18 and will receive the remaining $2.7 billion in a year. The state plans to apply for the capital project funds over the summer, Perusse said.
Cooper hopes most of the funding will help close the digital divide in the state. More than a million households in North Carolina lack affordable, reliable access to the internet, Cooper said. The disparity has been broadened by the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans turned to remote services, learning and operations. The North Carolina Legislature has allocated $30 million in federal aid for broadband expansion in a previous COVID-19 relief package.
"Our most ambitious recommendation is to connect everyone in this state together, and with the world, with high-speed internet," Cooper said. "Having access to high-speed internet is more important than ever to learn, to get a job, to see a doctor, to start a business and to stay connected."
Cooper recommended setting aside $250 million for $250 or $500 Extra Credit Grants for parents facing economic hardship because of the pandemic. State Republicans launched the program to offset remote learning costs. The first version offered $335 grants to low-income parents. Cooper's program, dubbed Extra Credit Grant 2.0, would award $500 grants to parents who had an annual gross income of $15,000 to $30,000 in 2019. Parents that grossed $30,000 to $60,000 in 2019 would get $250. About 600,000 North Carolinians qualify for the program, officials said.
Cooper also wants to spend $800,000 on water and wastewater systems reconstruction projects. Cooper said more than 100 North Carolina communities have antiquated water systems. His proposal earmarks $440 million for water, sewer and stormwater projects for distressed and at-risk water and wastewater units, and $360 million is available for all units statewide.
Cooper's American Rescue Plan proposal also includes:
• $575 million for affordable housing;
• $365 million for recovery scholarships for college students;
• $350 million for economic recovery grants for hospitality, personal care and small businesses;
• $350 million for scholarships and other financial aid for low- to middle-class students at public universities and colleges;
• $300 million for a teacher pipeline, literacy coaches and early childhood learning;
• $175 million for rural downtown transformation grants;
• $100 million for the State Health Plan;
• $75 million for medical research;
• $60 million for the arts and entertainment industry;
• $25 million for workforce development;
• $18 million for state-recognized American Indian tribes.