By Kari Travis
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — During a 2020 legislative session immersed in financial doubt and civil unrest, Republican lawmakers flailed against Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power, fighting executive orders they say hurt North Carolina.
It’s a political game, much like the 2019 standoff over the General Assembly’s $24 billion budget bill, which Cooper vetoed. But now, in an election year, the stakes are higher, and a sense of dejection hangs in the air. COVID-19 shutdowns have sucked life from the state’s economy. Riots have left North Carolina cities battered and boarded up. Arguments over Confederate monuments have led to illegally felled statues and more raucous protests.
Amid it all, the General Assembly slogged its way through its 2020 short session. Lawmakers passed COVID-19 relief bills, injecting the state with $1.6 billion from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. They slashed at Cooper’s executive orders and tried to reopen the economy. Passed a slew of “mini budgets” to keep the state running. Socked away roughly $2 billion in federal money to fill gaps in the budget.
Meanwhile, small businesses — now tasked with enforcement of the governor’s statewide face mask rule — are floundering. And Cooper, who has issued a long string of emergency orders since March, so far has blocked each bill that would’ve shortened some economic effects of his pandemic response.
When Cooper moved North Carolina into a slimmed-down Phase Two of his COVID-19 reopening plan in May, some businesses could reopen. Others could not. While restaurants set tables and fired grills, salons opened for haircuts and manicures, and pools splashed into business, gyms, bars, and a handful of other “nonessential businesses” remained closed. Republican lawmakers tried, twice in June, to enact bills that would’ve thrown a lifeline to those businesses. In both cases, Cooper vetoed them.
A bill to reopen skating rinks and bowling alleys also made it through the General Assembly.
Tuesday, Judge James Gale ruled bowling alleys could open immediately, though gyms, skating rinks, bars, and amusement parks remain closed. Cooper immediately announced plans to appeal.
In the waning hours of June 25, lawmakers introduced a third bill to reopen gyms and bars. The two previous bills required state Council of State, the state’s top 10 elected officials, to concur with Cooper on future emergency orders to close businesses.
Democrats objected to that portion, saying they would’ve voted for the bills if the measure were deleted.
“Just run a straight bill,” said Rep. Robert Reeves, D-Durham. “Help these folks out.”
So, Republicans tested them. Rewrote the bill. Dared Democrats to vote for it.
House Bill 806 passed the House and Senate before lawmakers adjourned June 26, but only a handful of Democrats supported it. H.B. 806 was sent to Cooper’s desk, and he vetoed it.
In fact, on July 2 Cooper vetoed eight bills, including three to reopen parts of the economy. He also, for example, on July 2 vetoed bills allowing people to celebrate the Fourth of July, as well as a move allowing those with concealed handgun permits to carry firearms at schools located at places of worship
Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, slammed Cooper’s vetoes of the reopening bills. “Governor Cooper’s scattershot executive orders are picking winners and losers instead of delivering real results for the people of North Carolina,” Moore said in a news release.
Another bill to open amusement parks, arcades, and playgrounds failed to make it out of the legislature.
Lawmakers returned to Raleigh to handle vetoes or other business. In September, they’ll meet again to deal with the leftover federal money.
In the meantime, North Carolina is pushing its way through three more weeks of Cooper’s Safer at Home Phase Two.
North Carolina needs to bring the lights up slowly, the governor repeatedly says. He points to science, leans heavily on N.C. Health Secretary Mandy Cohen, and sidesteps questions about why the state was picking “winners and losers” while reopening.
In her virtual news briefings, Cohen talks about hospitalizations, COVID-19 test results, and the three Ws: wait, wear, wash.
Republican lawmakers say they are tired of the speechmaking and lectures. Why are some businesses safe to reopen, but others are not? They’ve asked Cohen during committee meetings. Why are massive groups of protesters permitted to gather without social distancing? Why are hospital patients barred from visitors, left to die all alone?
Cohen points back to the governor’s “dimmer switch” example, talks vaguely about First Amendment protections — which the Cooper administration was slow to support during ReopenNC protests in April — cites concerns about overcrowded hospitals and infection risks, and says federal rules are responsible for hospital policies that block visitors.
Cohen and Cooper are “hiding behind the rhetoric,” Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, told Carolina Journal. Blackwell, a former lawyer and soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve, is one of many lawmakers critical of the governor’s prolonged shutdown. Blackwell supported legislation like Senate Bill 730, which would’ve restored visitation rights for hospital patients isolated due to COVID-19 restrictions. The bill died in the Senate after House lawmakers stripped the legislation to appease concerns of the state health department and the N.C. Health Care Association. Those changes rendered it useless, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke.
“One of the problems is that [Cooper and Cohen] are not taking a very sophisticated approach to dealing with the virus, generally,” Blackwell said.
The governor’s one-size-fits-all rules are crippling parts of North Carolina less affected by the pandemic, Blackwell said. Try as they might, legislators can’t change Cooper’s orders by passing bills — not unless they again win a veto-proof supermajority of the House and Senate in November. Or Cooper is replaced in the Governor’s Mansion.
Until then, lawmakers will enact what they can. But that won’t help people now, Blackwell told CJ. For now, the only recourse is a lawsuit against Cooper, a tactic many have already pursued.
“They’re gonna have to fight for themselves,” Blackwell said.