The N.C. Senate voted Wednesday evening to adjourn the longest long session of the legislature in decades, effective March 10. The adjournment resolution calls to reconvene the state legislature on April 4, then gavel out until May 4. The beginning of the short session would officially begin on May 18.
The adjournment measure, Senate Joint Resolution 748, passed the Senate unanimously. It now goes to the N.C. House, where it will face a vote on Thursday morning.
The adjournment vote came just after the Senate failed to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the Free the Smiles Act, Senate Bill 173, by a three-fifths majority. That bill would have given parents the right to opt out of a school mask mandate policy on behalf of their children without providing a reason. It would not have banned masks if parents wanted their children to wear them, and it provided liability protection for schools and boards.
The measure was passed by a bipartisan veto-proof majority in both chambers on Feb. 17. In the House, seven Democrats joined with Republicans to approve the bill, 76-42 (64%). Two Democratic senators voted “yes” on Free the Smiles, with the bill clearing that chamber, 28-17. It was then vetoed by Cooper on Feb. 24.
Along party lines, 27 Republican senators voted to override the veto while 22 Democrats voted against it. A three-fifths majority of the body is required to override a veto. Those Senate Democrats who originally voted in favor of it — Sen. Kirk DeViere, D-Cumberland, and Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke — changed their stance on the issue, voting not to override the veto.
Public school students in N.C. schools have been either masked or in remote learning for nearly two years amid restrictions and shutdowns due to the COVID pandemic. As infection rates are dwindling this spring, school systems across the state are rapidly dropping their COVID mask mandates. This week, 110 school systems have moved to a mask-optional policy, and five others are considering it. Supporters of the Free the Smiles Act say that, moving forward, parents should have the legal authority to determine masking for their children, not the government.
“Today I am asking that you support this motion so that we will ensure the full rights of parents to decide what is best for their children,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, arguing in favor of overriding Cooper’s veto.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, argued against the override. He said giving parents the decision rights on masks for children would tie the hands of school system administrators or health department officials if a future vaccine-resistant COVID variant spreads in the community.
“Today’s vote is another attempt by the majority party to politicize masks and another example of legislative overreach,” Chaudhuri said on the floor of the Senate.
S.B. 173 was re-referred to the Senate Rules Committee.