The legislative short session kicked off on April 28, a date specified when the long session adjourned on January 14. When we adjourned in January there was every reason to anticipate a typical short session: budget wrangling, passage of a few remaining bills, and adjournment with plenty of time to campaign for the November election.
But in the intervening 15 weeks, the world dramatically changed with the discovery of a novel coronavirus in a single Chinese province. Its global spread was rapid, soon reaching the definition of a pandemic. The first US case was diagnosed in Washington state in late January; NC documented its first case in early March. The usual routines of schools, businesses and families have since been incredibly disrupted. Unemployment is at a new high. The need for online learning has laid bare the geographic and socioeconomic divide in the availability of broadband internet. Serious health disparities for people of color and those without access to health insurance (acknowledged as longstanding problems in our state before COVID-19) are the cause of higher rates of infection and death for these populations. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, our country is facing protest marches, rioting in many cities, and widespread public outcry for criminal justice reform after the latest episode of extreme force used by police officers against people of color, particularly black men.
These are the conditions in which the General Assembly has engaged in a short session like no other.
With health experts urging statewide actions to ‘flatten the curve’ of new COVID-19 cases and the resultant ‘stay at home’ executive order (now a ‘safer at home’ executive order), the House made history when the short session gavelled in, using Zoom to convene committee meetings and live-streaming floor sessions on YouTube with proxy voting allowed by new House rules. In addition to protecting public health, an upside to this new world order is that citizens can easily tune in to committee meetings that previously required travel to Raleigh. House and Senate floor sessions can be viewed rather than just heard (although audio-only is still available). Access to each day’s legislative calendar; committee links with meeting times, agendas and documents; and video and audio links for each Chamber are available here.
April 28-May 2 was devoted to unanimously passing two COVID-19 response bills which Govenor Cooper quickly signed into law. Session Law 2020-3 sets education, economic support, health and state operations policies. Session Law 2020-4 appropriates $1.4 B of the state’s federal CARES Act funds. Read the specifics on the NCGA webpage under Session Laws.
Some of the most noteworthy bills passed in recent days include:
The Second Chance Act (SB 562)
After 13 months of legislative inaction, the Second Chance Act passed the NC House unanimously on June 10 after passing the NC Senate unanimously in 2019. The Second Chance Act is an important step in improving expunctions in North Carolina. Expunctions help people who committed crimes a long time ago clear their records and improve their opportunities for jobs and housing. Some of the improvements include:
*Provides automatic record clearing for charges dismissed or disposed of as “not guilty.”
*Allows expunctions for people whose convictions are treated as juvenile offenses under the Raise the Age law.
*Expands eligibility for expunctions for people who have been convicted of multiple nonviolent misdemeanors.
Read more about the bill in this WRAL.com article.
The ‘gym’ bill (HB 594)
HB 594 as originally written pertained to HOA bylaws when it passed the House in 2019. It was sitting dormant in a Senate committee when an Alamance county senator decided to strip the original language and use the bill as a vehicle to reopen gyms and fitness facilities. Stripping bills is a common occurrence in the short session since to be eligible for action most bills must have passed one Chamber in the long session. The ‘new’ bill contained rigorous requirements for screening and distancing of employees and participants, for equipment cleaning after each use and for thorough daily facility cleaning, among other stipulations. As a nurse practitioner I understand and value the physical and mental benefits of regular exercise and wellness activities. In addition, many health & fitness facilities are small women-owned businesses. I looked forward to voting for this bill and supporting the health & fitness industry and these small business owners.
Unfortunately, the same senator bill sponsor decided at the last minute to add verbatim the language of the recently vetoed bar bill–and new language that I could not support because I am a health care provider with a background in public health. The new language stripped the governor of his executive authority to close newly reopened bars if COVID-19 trends make it advisable to do so. It also stripped the Secretary of DHHS of her authority to close a business that threatens public health through its business practices (declaring it an ‘imminent health hazard’).
The new language required that the governor’s decision to close bars and a DHHS decision to declare a business an imminent threat would be ultimately decided by a vote of the 9 member Council of State. The Council of State are politicians elected statewide, including the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Agriculture, the Secretary of State and the State Auditor. They are all elected to do important jobs, but none involve issues of public health. Stripping away the power of the governor’s public health team would limit their ability to respond to illegal mass gatherings and to respond to changing COVID-19 conditions.
The new bill never received a House committee hearing; no amendments or changes were allowed on the floor. I was very disappointed to have to vote against it. The bill passed 69 to 50 and now heads to Governor Cooper for his signature or veto.
Elections Bill Offers Safe Options for Voting (HB 1169)
- One witness instead of two for completed absentee ballots
- Flexibility in the filling of positions for precinct officials
- Allowing completed absentee ballot request forms to be emailed or faxed to county board of elections
- Providing an additional two weeks for county boards to approve requests for absentee ballots
- Requiring the State Board of Elections to create an online portal for submission of requests for absentee ballots by September 1, 2020
New Task Force to Address Racial Inequity in the State Criminal Justice System
Governor Governor Roy Cooper signed Executive Order No. 145 on June 10, forming the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. The task force will recommend solutions to stop discriminatory law enforcement and criminal justice practices, and hold public safety officers accountable.
Led by Attorney General Josh Stein and North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls, the task force will convene a wide range of stakeholders including: community policing advocates, state and local law enforcement agencies, justice-involved individuals, representatives of the judicial branch, individuals from marginalized populations and more.
The task force will develop and help implement policy solutions to address systemic racial bias in criminal justice and submit legislative and municipal recommendations on or before December 1, 2020.
The Order also creates a Center for the Prevention of Law Enforcement Use of Deadly Force within the State Bureau of Investigation to track statistics and improve training related to the use of force.
Also last week, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Erik Hooks directed law enforcement agencies under the purview of Department of Public Safety to ensure each division has a ‘duty to intervene’ policy in place. He also directed that divisions conduct policy reviews on use of force, deescalation techniques, arrest procedures, cultural sensitivity training and internal investigation processes. Executive Order No. 145 directs cabinet agencies and encourages non-cabinet state agencies with sworn law enforcement officers to do the same.
Communities of color are disproportionately affected at each stage of the criminal justice system. National data is sobering:
- Black adults are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults;
- Hispanic adults are 3.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults;
- Black drivers are approximately twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by law enforcement for a traffic stop;
- Black defendants are more likely to be jailed before trial than white defendants;
- The murders of white people are more likely to be solved than the murders of black people;
- When black men and white men are convicted of the same crime, black men receive a prison sentence that is 20 percent longer;
- Black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women; and
- Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than are white men; black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than are white women.
Individuals interested in serving on the task force can visit the Governor’s website to apply.
DHHS Shares Health Guidance to Re-Open Public Schools
State education and health leaders have announced the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) health guidance for resuming in-person instruction in NC public schools. The toolkit provides a baseline for health practices to be followed to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as North Carolina resumes classroom instruction.
Re-opening plans will be determined by the status of COVID-19. Schools may reopen according to three scenarios – Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing, Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing, or Plan C: Remote Learning Only.
Governor Cooper and health officials have warned that people must continue to take COVID-19 precautions to ensure schools can resume in-person instruction.
The Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) was developed using the most current CDC guidance for schools and includes requirements and recommendations for eight areas: Social Distancing and Minimizing Exposure; Cloth Face Coverings; Protecting Vulnerable Populations; Cleaning and Hygiene; Monitoring for Symptoms; Handling Suspected, Presumptive or Confirmed Positive Cases of COVID-19; Communication and Combating Misinformation; Water and Ventilation Systems; Transportation; and Coping and Resilience.
For example, the Toolkit requires students and others to be screened for illness before entering school and requires floor markings to help maintain social distance. It also includes sample screening symptom checklists in English and Spanish, a flow chart protocol for handling suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, and a checklist of infection control supplies schools may need. The Toolkit will be updated as new health guidance is released by the CDC and additional resources are made available.
Questions regarding the Toolkit in English or Spanish can be directed to StrongSchoolsNC@dhhs.nc.gov.
Toll Free Numbers for COVID-19 Questions
- Text COVIDNC to 898211 to get state coronavirus alerts.
- Call 1-888-600-1685 to connect families in need of childcare options.
- There is a Hope Line at 1-866-578-4673 for older adults experiencing isolation due to social distancing.
- The Small Business Administration Customer Service Center can be reached at 1-800-659-2955. A helpful FAQ for small businesses is here.
The short session continues. The state expects a significant shortfall when revenue figures are reported after the (new) July 15 income tax filing deadline. A proposed two year budget bill that passed in spring 2019 was vetoed by Governor Cooper (the House passed a veto override in September; the Senate never took an override vote). Because of this, the state has been operating under the FY 2018-2019 budget with some spending increases as the result of small targeted appropriations bills. It is likely in the coming weeks that a series of mini-budget bills will be filed instead of a single comprehensive budget bill. Just like many of you, the legislature is figuring out how to conduct business under new and uncertain conditions.
I will send another update when the short session adjourns. In the meantime, I hope that you and your loved ones remain healthy. Reach me at email@example.com or call Suzanne Smith in my legislative office at 919-733-5602 if we can assist you in any way. Thank you for staying in touch with me and for allowing me to represent the people of District 41.