Legislative roundup, week of June 8-12, 2020
Each week of the General Assembly’s short session, CJ staff will look back at several important bills lawmakers handled.
Elections: An election bill awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature. House Bill 1169, Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020, sends money to the N.C. State Board of Elections for COVID-19 expenses, and includes temporary reforms to absentee and vote-by-mail policies. “The legislative process is the proper forum to consider elections funding and reforms, and this General Assembly has worked together in a bipartisan manner to ensure the effective administration of our elections in 2020,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, in a news release Thursday. The elections board requested emergency powers earlier this year, saying it needed flexibility to deal with the pandemic. That request was denied by the N.C. Rules Review Commission in May.
Hospital visits: Carlton Page, a North Carolina paramedic whose daughter is hospitalized for Crohn’s Disease, just wants to visit her bedside. But he’s not allowed due to COVID-19 hospital restrictions, Page told senators Thursday during a health committee meeting. Senate Bill 730, The No Patient Left Alone Act, is one possible remedy, if the bill survives some objections from lawmakers and lobbyists. To prevent the spread of infection, many are barred from visiting hospitalized relatives, said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke. Daniel is a primary sponsor of S.B. 730. It allows patients one visitor during states of emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic — so long as that person is screened for illnesses and stays in the patient’s room. The problem is real, but S.B. 730 is “too blunt an instrument,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, to the committee. Hospitals need to use all protections against COVID-19, she said. Though it’s sad to hear about those who’ve died without family by their side, “we also cannot say that they did not prevent the spread of infection.” Leah Burns, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Healthcare Association, told senators hospitals are worried about loosening restrictions too quickly. “I’m not discrediting any of the stories coming out of this committee, because they are awful, and they are sad,” Burns said. She suggested the General Assembly form a working group including NCHA, doctors, patients, among others, in the discussion. The situation is too urgent, said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, whose daughter has Crohn’s Disease. “We have a problem. We have heard it from real people. Real people who have to live with the fact that their loved one died alone. … We just can’t let that happen.” S.B. 730 passed the Senate Health Committee and will be heard next by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Recodification: North Carolina’s messy criminal code makes it impossible for residents to know when they’re breaking the law, Sen. Andy Wells, R-Catawba, said Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 855, Recodification of Criminal Laws, would create a bipartisan commission to clean up, organize, and condense the hundreds of crimes strewn across 140 chapters of the N.C. General Statutes. The working group would create a database of offenses, covering ordinances from counties, cities, towns, and even metropolitan sewer districts. Last year, the N.C. General Statutes Commission was assigned to sort through local crimes, but found the task overwhelming, Wells said. “We’re trying to get [crimes] in one place, organized,” he said. S.B. 855 sets a deadline for the commission, giving it one year to get the job done. The bill will be heard next by the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee.
Mini budgets: The 2020 short session won’t feature a budget omnibus bill, but several mini budgets have passed through the legislature and await signatures from Gov. Roy Cooper. A handful of them passed Thursday, doling out money for K-12 enrollment, a reduced-tuition program at three UNC schools, a new steam plant at Western Carolina University, state park staff, and rural utilities.
CARES Act money: Senate Bill 805, Coronavirus Relief Funds, would move $654.4 million of leftover money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to fill holes in the state’s General Fund. Sen. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, said the spending is allowed under CARES Act rules, which limit how states can use the money. North Carolina is still waiting for Congress to let states use the relief money to fill budget gaps left by late and unpaid taxes.