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Broadband, education atop Cooper’s $5.7B virus aid proposals

RALEIGH (AP) — Broadband, K-12 and higher education, local infrastructure and targeted businesses would be among the greatest beneficiaries in Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposals unveiled Wednesday on how to spend $5.7 billion in federal COVID-19 aid recently approved by Congress.

“This pandemic has brought us a once-in-a-generation challenge. These funds have brought us a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let’s use them to make transformational change for our state,” Cooper said at a news conference. “We’re building a bridge from response to recovery.”

Cooper proposed to state legislators that $1.2 billion of North Carolina’s share of American Rescue Plan funds go toward fiber installation grants and other broadband projects where internet remains slow. The goal is to raise the percentage of households with high-speed internet from 73% to 80% in 2025, reaching to 100% of families with children, according to Cooper’s written plan.

Over 1 million households lack high-speed internet or can’t afford it, the governor said: “This must be a priority, as we cannot lose this chance to close the digital divide.” A similar $750 million broadband proposal using these funds is scheduled for a House committee debate Thursday.

The state learned last week that its portion of the largest share of the American Rescue Plan would be $5.4 billion. Cooper’s recommendations include another $277 million in federal aid for capital projects. The state received half of the $5.4 billion on Tuesday, state budget Director Charlie Perusse said, with the rest coming in spring 2022. Funds must be fully expended by the end of 2026.

A higher-education aid package of $835 million would create new university and community college scholarships of at least $6,000 for in-state residents from low- and middle-income families, as well as more grants to students to cover daily expenses while attending class. In all, the package would provide more financial aid to over 200,000 students, Cooper said.

Another $300 million would seek to draw toward mandated goals in the North Carolina Constitution — the subject of longstanding litigation — to provide opportunities for a sound basic education for children. The money in part would help develop highly skilled teachers and literacy coaches and expand prekindergarten.

A program that Republican lawmakers began in 2020 to give all families with school-age children $335 grants would be rebooted if Cooper gets his way. The new version of the Extra Credit Grants would offer $250 or $500 more to families below certain income levels to help them with rising living expenses.

For business still struggling to recover from the pandemic recession, Cooper would set aside $350 million for two programs that would provide grants to entities within the hospitality and leisure services industry and to small businesses. To address aging wastewater and drinking water systems, the Department of Environmental Quality would distribute $800 million for repairs.

“These recommendations are rooted in the principle that these investments should be fast, equitable, and effective,” the Democratic governor said in a letter to Republican legislative leaders. “They focus on assisting those families most impacted by the pandemic, upgrading our infrastructure, preparing our workforce, promoting business development and innovation, and positioning government to best serve our people.”

The $5.7 billion is the latest coronavirus relief aid coming from Washington, and it’s the largest tranche since the first stimulus package was approved in spring 2020.

Cooper and GOP lawmakers worked in tandem last year when they agreed how to spend $3.6 billion in coronavirus relief funds. Now they’ll have to work together again, as legislators will take his recommendations under advisement and pass their own legislation.

The latest aid from Washington comes as state government coffers are already flush with revenues collected during the economic recovery.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and budget-writer, said in a written statement that like “most budget issues, some of Gov. Cooper’s proposals will have support and some will not.”

The proposals don’t include $6 billion from the American Rescue Plan that Congress already has told the state how it must be used. Over $3 billion more is also going to local governments.

The $5.7 billion in recommendations also would spend:

— $575 million on building or repairing thousands of affordable rental and housing units and providing down-payment assistance to first-time homebuyers.

— $160 million to test and remove lead from drinking water pipes and paint and for asbestos abatement at K-12 buildings and child care centers.

— $125 million for health initiatives that target diabetes, cancer, heart disease and obesity.

— $75 million for health research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem State University and with other historically black colleges in the UNC system.

— funds to assist seven state-recognized American Indian tribes and for women- and minority-owned businesses.