NC legislature opens session subdued amid virus, DC unrest

Published 6:55 pm Wednesday, January 13, 2021

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — Amid worries about COVID-19 and physical security, the North Carolina General Assembly officially began its two-year session Wednesday, with much of the usual pomp subdued in the name of safety.

The gavels went down at midday on a House and Senate that remained in Republican hands after the November elections. But the GOP still lacks veto-proof majorities, meaning Democrats led by Gov. Roy Cooper, who also won reelection, will have much to say about what legislative initiatives become laws. Coronavirus relief spending, public education improvements after months of mandated online learning and redistricting are the likely top agenda items.

Unlike previous opening days, the families of senators and representatives were prohibited from joining the elected lawmakers on the floors for their swearings-in. The galleries largely were limited to relatives of first-term legislators and some members of the media.

Face coverings, while encouraged in the Legislative Building, are still not required. But all senators and all but a handful of House members wore masks — a marked increase compared with the last floor sessions held in September.

As expected, Republican Sen. Phil Berger of Eden was elected unanimously by his peers to a sixth term as Senate leader, while GOP Rep. Tim Moore of Kings Mountain won a fourth term as House speaker with Democratic support.

Moore, whose election ties him with Liston Ramsey and Jim Black for the most two-year terms won by a speaker in state history, acknowledged “challenging times” and “uncertainty” in his acceptance speech. But he and Berger said separately that prudent fiscal decisions put the state in a more favorable position to overcome them.

While Berger said the Republican majorities are the result of voters supporting conservative policies, he acknowledged Cooper’s reelection means “mixed party control” of state government and efforts by him and Cooper to find consensus on some matters.

“I intend to work with all to find, develop, and expand common ground where it may exist, and I know many of you feel the same way,” Berger said. “Gov. Cooper and I have had multiple conversations since the election, and he offered a similar commitment. I take him at his word.”

Berger is second in longevity as Senate leader only to then-Sen. Marc Basnight of Manteo, who died just two weeks ago and whom Berger mentioned prominently in his speech. Berger’s son — recently elected state Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. — administered the leadership oath to his father.

The Senate kept to traditions of a live national anthem performance and the presentation of flags by a high school ROTC group, but the House session was more muted.

As a sign of the dampened festivities, the deli platters and other food brought in by legislators for friends and constituents on opening day were replaced by tables carrying water bottles and prepackaged chocolate cookies — compliments of the Senate Republican Caucus.

With concerns about last week’s violence by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol spreading to state capitals, the presence of law enforcement officers was slightly elevated at the legislative complex in Raleigh. But the Legislative Building was open to the public.

Wednesday also marked the first day for new Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican, as the Senate’s presiding officer.

State law required the legislature meet for one day to organize, seat all 170 lawmakers and elect leaders. After Wednesday, they won’t return until Jan. 27, when the legislation begins in earnest.

Republicans hold 69 of the 120 seats in the House — a four-seat increase compared with the past two years. The Democrats picked up an extra seat in the Senate, but the GOP retains a 28-22 seat advantage.