State legislative work nearing an end, for now
Published 12:00 am Friday, June 26, 2020
By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislators worked Thursday toward completing the bulk of their work this year during a session dominated by COVID-19-related funding and policy measures, including Republican challenges of Gov. Roy Cooper’s orders shuttering businesses.
The state House and Senate, which started meeting in late April, kept negotiating and voting on bills late into the evening. They appeared close to finalizing a Medicaid funding package for next year that also would direct the program begin its long-delayed managed care overhaul by July 2021. It was supposed to begin last fall.
House Speaker Tim Moore announced Thursday night that the GOP-controlled General Assembly would reconvene on a later date he didn’t immediately name. State leaders hope the federal government will make more federal COVID-19 recovery funds available later to help cover the estimated $2.5 billion drop in collections anticipated from the economic downturn.
Most of the session’s headlines centered around partisan fights over bills advanced by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that sought to overturn the Democratic governor’s COVID-19 executive orders.
Cooper vetoed bills that would have partially reopened gyms and bars. Other approved measures reopening bowling alleys, amusement parks and other entertainment centers remain on his desk, but they were also likely to soon receive his veto stamp.
Cooper has defended keeping these categories of businesses shuttered through at least mid-July, saying they are higher-risk venues for transmitting the virus when increasing caseloads could overwhelm hospitals.
Republicans said expanding the reopening, coupled with strong social distancing directives, was the way to go. Cooper’s orders were devastating industries, they said, keeping people out of work and bordering on bankruptcy. Republicans advanced more bills late Thursday that again attempted to reopen public playgrounds and gyms among other venues.
“There is a genuine difference in philosophy” between the parties on reopening during the pandemic, said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and House Rules Committee chairman. That difference also could be seen on wearing face masks inside the Legislative Building. While most Democratic legislators did, most Republicans did not.
Otherwise, the session has been marked by unusual levels of consensus after years of strife under GOP rule. Many attributed the amity to the common struggles associated with the virus’ spread, which also meant the expanded use of video conference for committee work in both chambers and remote voting in the House.
Lawmakers started meeting in late April and unanimously agreed to legislation distributing $1.6 billion of the $3.5 billion in federal relief money earmarked for North Carolina, with some going to expanding virus testing, tracing, research and business aid. By late Thursday, legislators had finalized a measure that would increase that total distribution to $2.1 billion.
A bill crafted by both parties designed to improve access to mail-in absentee balloting this fall won overwhelming support. Even a measure that takes away several of Cooper’s seats on the state Board of Transportation and gives them to legislative appointees passed comfortably when added to provisions that addressed the Department of Transportation’s recent fiscal crisis.
“We seem to see continued bipartisanship in the chamber,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat and minority whip. But he said the two parties still don’t see eye-to-eye on Democratic efforts to increase maximum weekly unemployment benefits, expand Medicaid through the 2010 federal health care law and address policing reforms.
Sessions in even-numbered years usually are focused on adjusting the second year of a two-year state budget. But last year’s unresolved budget stalemate combined with the revenue shortfall from the COVID-19 downturn meant GOP legislators decided to pass a series of agency-targeted funding measures to help state government operate.
They passed bills to fund expected schools and university enrollment growth. They also found money to prepare for expanded juvenile justice reforms, targeted state building construction and repairs and to keep providing low-cost tuition at three University of North Carolina system schools.
The demonstrations nationally and in North Carolina against racism following George Floyd’s death contributed to renewed interest in criminal justice reform. A pair of measures languishing since last year were revived earlier this month and sent to Cooper. The governor announced Thursday he had signed one of them that will let more people get their criminal records cleared of lower-level and non-violent convictions.
It remained unclear whether $1.5 million would be provided toward the construction of a long-planned park in downtown Raleigh for the contributions of African Americans in the state. The House pulled the measure back this week.