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In its last round of scheduled votes until next September, the General Assembly wrapped up work Wednesday after failing repeatedly to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes of a slew of bills challenging his emergency powers.
The legislature informally adjourned its 2020 short session last week but returned this week after Cooper sent six bills back to legislators with a veto stamp. The governor has yet to lose any of the veto fights since the Democrats took enough seats in 2018 to end GOP supermajorities in both chambers.
The majority of the legislation receiving vetoes was aimed at overruling the governor’s decision to close down certain types of businesses and his decision last month to pause further openings in the wake of rising COVID-19 hospitalizations.
The bills set reopening rules for gyms, health clubs, skating rinks, bowling alleys, fairs, carnivals and amusement parks — businesses that were not allowed to reopen under Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. Cooper suspended further reopenings last month after a continued rise in cases and hospitalizations.
The biggest change that lawmakers proposed would have rewritten sections of the state’s emergency management statutes to require the governor to get concurrence from the Council of State before declaring a state of emergency.
The Council of State in North Carolina is the governor and other high-level elected officials, such as the lieutenant governor, state treasurer and attorney general, not all of whom are from the same political party as the governor.
The vetoed measure would also have required public health officials to get Council of State concurrence before they could close a specific business or type of business deemed an imminent health hazard.
In his veto message to the legislature, Cooper said the bill would add more layers of bureaucracy to the process and frustrate officials’ ability to respond quickly to emergencies.
Lawmakers question each other’s motivations on vetoes
Although a handful of the vetoed bills passed initially with some bipartisan support, Democrats closed ranks behind Cooper once he issued the vetoes. Republicans claimed the shift was hypocritical and demanded to know what had changed other than Cooper’s vetoes.
During the close of debate on a bill to reopen gyms and health clubs, House Minority Leader Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said the spread of the disease has changed for the worse since the bill was passed in late June.
“We’ve set five different records for hospitalizations since the last vote,” he said.
He noted that a recent ranking of the risk of infection for a list of activities and businesses put many of the businesses the reopening bills are aimed at in the high-risk category.
“I understand these businesses feel left out of Phase 2, but I ask you, what are we supposed to do, just ignore the science?” Jackson said.
“Let’s respect the science, let’s listen to these experts. Let’s keep the riskiest activities closed.”
In a statement issued immediately after the session, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, accused Democrats of “blind obedience” to the governor, who he said has been “picking winners and losers” since the start of the pandemic.
“The General Assembly has worked tirelessly to reopen the state safely,” Berger said.
“Gov. Cooper issued shutdown orders to prevent overloading the hospitals in our state. We did that, and our hospitals continue to have the capacity. Now we should be focusing on protecting those most vulnerable to the virus and ensuring those who can safely return to work do so.”
Debate in both chambers laid bare the increasingly partisan nature of the final days of the session.
Just before the Senate’s final day of work, the Democratic minority leader, Dan Blue, called the reopen bills a dangerous strategy.
“As state leaders, we cannot cave to the critics, and now is not the time to try to score political points,” Blue said in a statement Wednesday morning.
“Life-and-death decisions are being made by the General Assembly today. Several other states reopened their economies too soon and are now dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases.”
Although the legislature was unsuccessful in overriding Cooper’s veto of a bill to reopen bowling alleys, the businesses got a go-ahead Tuesday to reopen from a state judge who said they could do so using the same distancing and precautions as restaurants.
The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed last month by a regional bowling association. Shortly after the ruling, the N.C. Attorney General’s Office issued a statement staying the state would seek a stay of the decision while it is under appeal.
In other action, the legislature passed an indefinite extension of an exemption to the state’s anti-mask laws. A previous exemption would have ended Aug. 1.
Also included in that bill was a fail-safe section that would repeal a provision that makes some information in death investigations confidential.
That provision was called into question by civil rights organizations and open records advocates who charged it circumvents the state’s public records laws. The change was originally requested by the state Department of Health and Human Services to protect records when they are shared with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Cooper vetoed the bill on Monday, saying the change “could have unintended consequences of limiting transparency in death investigations.” Neither chamber attempted to override the veto.
The House and Senate disagreed on a change to give schools the flexibility to start online classes. The Senate declined to take up a House plan that would have changed a requirement that the first week of classes, which starts on Aug. 17, be held in person, preventing districts from moving directly to online classes, which under state law can’t start until Aug. 24.
The legislature will conduct a nonvoting skeleton session on Saturday and then formally adjourn until Sept. 2.
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