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Local lawmakers talk most significant bills during ‘difficult’ legislative session

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Though most of the state legislative session’s efforts have been aimed at mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, local lawmakers said measures regarding elections, transportation and reopening businesses also were particularly notable.

State lawmakers worked well into the pre-dawn hours Friday passing legislation. The General Assembly will conduct some skeletal sessions until July 7 before officially reconvening in early September for two days of distributing federal COVID-19 funds. During this time, bills can be ratified and finalized, and technical changes can be made as long as they don’t change the substance of the bill, said Sen. Carl Ford.

All of Rowan County’s representatives spoke to the Post about this year’s legislative session.

 

Rep. Julia Howard, R-77

Dozens of bills have made their way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, some of which are aimed at reopening businesses such as bowling alleys and other entertainment centers. Howard said she believes the governor will veto such bills, if he hasn’t already, because “our numbers are not looking good” and continue to increase.

Howard said the just-ended legislative session is “one of the most difficult” in which she’s served because the state and nation are grappling with issues of racial inequality across the nation and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are very agitated and angry that they can’t get out and do the things they normally do,” she said.

Some legislation Howard cited as important includes one she sponsored: House Bill 1067, which sought to modernize and expand the prohibition of debt settlement by making it an unfair trade practice. The bill made multiple stops in committees within the House and Senate, but hasn’t seen any further action since June 18 when it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Howard said the Senate wouldn’t bring the bill to the floor for a vote, which she finds “very disappointing.”

“A lot of people are being severely financially injured, and even more so now with the virus,” she said, adding that the companies often “take money and don’t do what they say they’ll do.”

Howard also said it seemed more important to lawmakers “for us to hurry up and get out” of the session rather than pass important legislation.

 

Rep. Harry Warren, R-76

Warren said House Bill 1043 and Senate Bill 704 were two of the most significant pieces of legislation “coming out the gate” of the session.

HB 1043, the 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act, established a Coronavirus Relief Reserve in the state’s general fund.

SB 704 deals more with taxation, education and health care policies during the pandemic. For example, the bill includes clauses that relieve interest on corporate and individual income taxes, change unemployment requirements to make it more accessible for people during the pandemic and waive end-of-grade and end-of-course testing at schools.

HB 1225 was significant, as it proposes $1.05 billion in bond funding for K-12 public schools, $600 million for the University of North Carolina system, $300 million for the state’s community colleges and $1.15 billion for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Others of significance, he said, include HB 118, which extends protections for employers who make reasonable effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 at their businesses; HB 686, which would exempt Independence Day celebrations from the current stay-at-home order; the First Step Act, which increases judicial discretion in sentencing for drug trafficking offenses; and the Second Chance Act, which will allow people with dismissed charges and old convictions to expunge their criminal records.

Another piece of legislation Warren cited is SB 808, which allocated more than $460 million to Medicaid funding and expansion.

Additionally, Warren said many people felt HB 652 was important. It is an act that allows a person with a concealed carry handgun permit to carry a handgun on educational property that is the location of both a school and place of religious worship. The bill also allows for certain first responders, such as EMS personnel, to carry a firearm in certain instances.

Warren said it’s important for legislators to come back and stay in session in July as the governor signs or vetoes bills that have made their way to his desk. If Cooper vetoes a bill while legislators aren’t in session, Warren said, enough lawmakers will have to reconvene to override any vetoes.

Additionally, Warren said he believed there was a “high degree of bipartisanship” this session besides the normal disagreements among the two parties.

Of these bills, HB 1043, SB 704, the First Step Act and Second Chance Act have been signed into law by the governor. HB 118, SB 808, HB 118 and HB 652 have passed and are awaiting the governor’s signature or veto. HB 1225 remains in the Senate, but if approved, it would place both bonds on the November ballot for voters in the state.

 

Sen. Carl Ford

Ford has supported bills aimed at reopening certain businesses such as restaurants, bars, skating rinks, bowling alleys and gyms. Cooper has vetoed multiple pieces of legislation that would reopen bars, gyms and restaurants, and the House fell short last week of the necessary amount of votes needed to override his veto of reopening bars and gyms.

Ford also cited HB 77 as significant, which adjusts the NCDOT budget for 2020-21 and its operations. Eric Boyette was appointed NCDOT secretary in February. Ford said, “We think he’ll be a good one.”

Ford called the session “fairly unusual” and added that fewer bills were filed this year due to limited funds and limited time.

HB 77 has passed both the House and Senate and awaits a signature or a veto from Cooper.

 

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-83

Pittman echoed Warren’s comments on the significance of assisting people and businesses with unemployment issues amid the pandemic. He added that the governor’s administration hasn’t been efficient in implementing these measures aimed at helping with unemployment claims.

“I know that my legislative assistant, who is my wife, Tammy, has worked very diligently to try to get help for the many people desperate for assistance who have contacted us,” Pittman said in an email. “We have had some success in getting help for many, but there are some still waiting, in spite of our best efforts.”

He also credited the signing of HB 1169 into law, which provides funding for local elections boards and modifies some current elections laws in response to the pandemic. It allows voters to submit absentee ballot requests via email, fax or a new online portal. Additionally, it provides temporary flexibility in recruiting precinct officials and poll workers.

Pittman called the bill a “significant compromise” for both sides of the aisle.

He also cited SB 818 that Cooper signed last week. It increases the pay of certain school employees.

Pittman echoed Howard’s belief that lawmakers rushed to get out of session, saying “getting out of Raleigh was more important to some than dealing with legislation that had been passed in one chamber and was still awaiting action by the other chamber.”

He added, “Gov. Cooper continues to follow questionable ‘science,’ break the law and violate our citizens’ constitutionally recognized rights in his decrees. With that and other things in mind, my main takeaway from the 2019-2020 session of the Legislature is simply that elections have consequences.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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