Pardon Our Dust
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The week has been busy at the legislature. Beginning by hosting the Governor, the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, and multiple cabinet secretaries for the State of the State, the General Assembly capitalized on having everyone in town with busy days packed with committee meetings throughout the week. National news stories featuring the protests in Elizabeth City have spurred lawmakers to push criminal justice reform, with many ideas being discussed online, in editorials and in committee rooms. As the May 13 crossover deadline approaches, expect weeks to get even busier as lawmakers reach compromises to advance their bills.
As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 1,985 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 1,137 individuals hospitalized, and sadly, 12,631 confirmed deaths. There have been 7,100,838 doses of the vaccine distributed in NC.
As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.
For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website, and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.
State of the State
“The state of the state of North Carolina is strong,” said Governor Roy Cooper (D) Monday evening during his third annual State of the State address to the legislature. Cooper spoke stirringly about expanding Medicaid, continuing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with housing and utility assistance, combating systemic racism, and passing a school construction bond. House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) gave the Republican response following Cooper’s speech, and also spoke about the need for bipartisanship and working together. Moore reiterated the need to continue doing what has been done for the past decade while Republicans have controlled the legislature. Moore said, “We need to stay the course with smart budgeting, regulatory reforms and tax cuts that have led to increased economic growth, and I am proud to say our state government has its largest budget surplus in years.”
North Carolina continues to hold steady with COVID-19 metrics, but state officials are not seeing the decline in cases or hospitalizations that they need to see to lift the indoor mask mandate, according to Governor Cooper in a Wednesday press conference. On the heels of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) decision Monday to recommend that Americans can safely no longer wear masks in outdoor settings, Cooper issued an Executive Order to implement some of the CDC’s suggestions.
Executive Order 209 will take effect April 30 and is set to expire June 1. The order will lift mask mandates for outdoor settings, and increase mass gathering limits. The number of people who may gather indoors will increase from 50 to 100, and the number of people who may congregate outdoors will increase from 100 to 200. Cooper said he hopes to lift all mass gathering and social distancing restrictions by June 1, as long as metrics continue to decline.
Cooper and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen reiterated that the indoor mask mandate will not be lifted until at least two-thirds of all North Carolina adults receive at least one dose of the vaccine. However, metrics do not appear to show that we will hit that benchmark any time soon. The COVID-19 Dashboard on the DHHS website shows that last week, fewer than 85,000 people got administered first doses, which would be the lowest since December 20th. In response, Dr. Cohen announced that the state is transitioning from doing mass vaccination sites to now focus on ease of access, such as offering the vaccine at the grocery store to people while shopping.
Criminal Justice Reform
In the wake of a national controversy unfolding in Elizabeth City, NC surrounding the shooting death of Andrew Brown, criminal justice reform has been passionately discussed in the General Assembly, with legislators from both parties proposing ideas. One that is gaining traction is Sen. Danny Britt’s (R-Robeson) S300: Criminal Justice Reform. The bill was heard in the Senate Judiciary committee Wednesday and was discussed favorably, with representatives of the Sheriff’s Association, NC Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement groups all speaking favorably about the bill during public comment.
The proposed committee substitute, which Britt noted was version 31, meaning it had gone through thirty-one revisions before being adopted at the committee, was based on recommendations from the House Speaker’s Community Relations, Law Enforcement and Justice Subcommittee and Governor Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. The bill would create a single database for tracking law-enforcement officer decertification or suspensions, and another database to log incidents of every death to or injury of an officer. It would also require all levels of law enforcement to develop an early warning system to intervene and correct law enforcement performance.
Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg) proposed an amendment to input language from S455: Decriminalize Non-Statutory Offenses to decriminalize non-statutory offenses and allow for a compliance defense for local ordinances. The amendment was adopted. Senator Britt said they were still working with stakeholders on other provisions of the bill, and they hope to land at a position that increases transparency and oversight over law enforcement. The bill was only up for discussion this week, but committee Chair Sen. Norman Sanderson (R-Craven) said the bill would be up for a vote next week.
Lawmakers discussed a series of bills to assist firefighters this week, with committee rooms occupied by the State Fire Marshall and firefighters from across the state.
- HB 535: Firefighters Fighting Cancer Act of 2021 would provide a lump sum of $25,000 to firefighters for each cancer diagnosis they receive, up to $50,000 total. It would also cover up to $12,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses, and would provide 36 months of disability benefits to firefighters who can no longer work. According to bill sponsor Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), NC is the only state without any presumptive coverage of cancer for firefighters. Recent studies show firefighters are 9% more likely to get cancer compared to everyone else, and they are 14% more likely to die from it. The bill passed the House Health committee Tuesday and is on its way to the House Appropriations Committee.
- HB 661: CC Fire Training/15 Years Old would assist fire departments, especially in rural counties, with recruiting qualified firefighters. The bill would clarify that youth fifteen years or older can enroll in courses, including certification-eligible courses, in fire training at a community college. According to bill sponsor Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood), there are three more dangerous courses they have to finish after high school, but this bill would speed up the process to become a certified firefighter. The House Community Colleges Education Committee approved the bill Wednesday and was sent to the Rules Committee.
- SB 374: Authorize Use of Blue Lights on Fire Apparatus would allow fire departments to buy fire trucks with blue lights installed in addition to the normal red lights. Sen. Steve Jarvis (R-Davidson) sponsored the bill and began his remarks by holding up photos of three fire trucks that were totaled and unrecognizable after being hit by a tractor trailer truck on I-85. The rationale for the bill, Jarvis said, is to protect fire trucks and firefighters responding to emergencies on highways and roads. Tim Bradley, the Executive Director of the State Firefighters Association, spoke during committee and said that studies show that the public inherently slows down for blue lights. The bill passed the State and Local Government Committee Wednesday and was referred to the Rules Committee.
Most of the business that is conducted in the General Assembly is complex and involves hard-to-remember acronyms and codes. But sometimes, legislator’s let known their personal passions with bills to improve or change a very specific, and very easy to understand, part of state government. On Tuesday, Senate Rules Chair Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) introduced SB 628: Native Plants Right to Work Act to the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee. The comically named bill would require the NC Department of Transportation (DOT) and all localities to use only North Carolina-based plants and seeds on state property, highways, and even local landscaping projects that use state funds. The UNC System, the Department of Administration and the NC Forestry Association would be in charge of classifying the seeds and plants able to be used.
Rabon stated that just last weekend he planted 150 milkweeds, a perennial plant native to North Carolina that provide food to and act as a host for eggs of Monarch butterflies. He argued that over the last several decades, North Carolina and other states have stopped planting native plants like the milkweed, leading to a drastic reduction in Monarch butterfly populations. Another example he gave was quail, which have also simply disappeared in many areas. One major reason for their decline is the presence of exotic grasses like fescue that choke out wildlife and habitat, including weeds.
Before the bill passed the committee, Rabon noted that there would be amendments, one in particular from DOT for road erasure and stabilization. The bill is now on its way to Rabon’s Rules Committee.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, May 3
4:00PM Senate: Session Convenes
5:00PM House: Session Convenes
Tuesday, May 4
1:00PM House: Pensions and Retirement
2:00PM House: Homeland Security, Military and Veterans Affairs
2:00PM House: Judiciary 2
2:00PM House: Wildlife Resourcces
3:00PM House: Families, Children, and Aging Policy
Wednesday, May 5
10:00AM House: Transortation
11:00AM House: State Personnel
1:00PM House: Alcoholic Beverage Control
2:00PM House: Banking
Thursday, May 6
11:00AM House: Local Government