Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed. Here’s this week’s review:
Mini budgets: Bite-sized budgets are once again moving through the General Assembly. The Senate passed three of these bills on June 2, which included money for the old steam plant at Western Carolina University, military bases, and the state budget office. On the House side, lawmakers approved money for the Morganton School of Science and Math, K-12 school enrollment growth, and money to match federal funds for North Carolina State University and at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. A couple of mini budgets have already reached Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. Millions in appropriations for Raise the Age and the VIPER communications network, used by first responders and law enforcement, await Cooper’s signature.
Early voting: With COVID-19 still a concern, voters are strongly encouraged to wear a face mask when they visit a polling place for early voting. Early voting began June 4 for the second Republican primary in the 11th Congressional District and the new Republican primary in Columbus County Commissioner District 2. Safety precautions are in place to keep voters and poll workers safe, said a news release from the N.C. State Board of Elections. Hand sanitizer will be available at early voting sites and poll workers will have access to face shields and gloves. Social distancing will be enforced. “We want voters who come to a polling place during early voting or on Election Day to feel confident that significant precautions are being taken to protect their health and safety,” said Karen Brinson Bell, the NCSBE executive director.
Civitas Poll: Governor Cooper’s approval has slipped since April, says a new poll from the conservative leaning Civitas Institute. Harper Polling surveyed 500 likely general election voters in North Carolina between May 26-28. The margin of error is +/-4.38% at a 95% confidence interval. The poll found support for the governor dipped from 70% to 63%. Meanwhile, support for President Donald Trump has remained relatively stable, dropping from 52% in April to 51%. “It appears that the ‘rally ’round the flag’ effect that we saw at the start of the COVID-19 crisis has peaked for both President Trump and Gov. Cooper,” said Donald Bryson, president of Civitas Institute, in a news release. Civil unrest has hit the nation since the poll came out of the field, and the economy has yet to completely reopen due to COVID-19, Bryson said, so it will be interesting to see how the numbers settle in the August poll.
Farm bill: State lawmakers have finally agreed after months of arguing over a farm bill. A conference version of Senate Bill 315, North Carolina Farm Act of 2019-2020, was approved by both the House and Senate this week, and sent to the governor. The bill was stripped of all mention of hemp and shooting sports, the most contentious portions of the bill, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said Thursday. “This has been an 18-month-long journey,” Jackson told senators. Jackson, a watermelon farmer, has sponsored several agriculture bills, but S.B. 315 is the most disputed by far, he said. At the center of a disagreement with the House was the question of when, and if, the state would ban smokable hemp. That issue was deleted. Several senators said they support the hemp industry, and were concerned about consequences for growers and retailers in North Carolina. The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps changing its guidance on hemp, Jackson said. The N.C. Department of Agriculture requested a two-year extension of its hemp pilot program, and is waiting to see how things unfold. S.B. 315 supports marketing and branding for North Carolina products like sweet potatoes, eases regulations on farming production and maintenance, and provides flexibility for agritourism.
RNC saga continues: As the Republican National Convention looks to move most of its events out of Charlotte, Cooper turned up the heat on President Trump and the N.C. GOP during a Thursday news conference. “Let’s make one thing clear: we want the RNC convention in North Carolina,” the governor told reporters. Trump tweeted Tuesday that the RNC was “forced” to move its August celebrations elsewhere because Cooper “is still in Shelter-In-Place Mode, and not allowing us to occupy the arena as originally anticipated and promised. Would have showcased beautiful North Carolina to the World, and brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, and jobs, for the State.” During a conversation with the governor, Trump insisted on a full arena of 19,000 people and no social distancing or masks, Cooper said. While Charlotte hotels and restaurants will suffer if the RNC cancels most of its engagements, “We’re not gonna guarantee something that we know would hurt the health and safety of North Carolinians.” Discussions between Charlotte and RNC officials were ongoing Thursday. No official decision was announced, but some of the convention’s business may still take place in North Carolina. “We’ll see how it all works out,” Cooper said. On Thursday night, N.C. GOP Chairman Michael Whatley tweeted that Republican lawmakers are gearing up to file legislation that would allow the convention to remain in Charlotte with a full capacity attendance guarantee. The bill language, which Whatley tweeted, doesn’t mandate social distancing or masks, but makes health checks and sanitization a priority during the convention. “I cannot believe that Gov. Cooper has made this necessary,” Whatley said.
Step toward school reopening: North Carolina is moving forward on a plan for safely reopening schools in the fall. The state’s health department has sent draft K-12 health guidelines to the Department of Public Instruction for review, said State Superintendent Mark Johnson in an email obtained by News & Observer. “It appears that a majority of the Cooper administration’s guidance on substantive issues .. .would be recommendations for August rather than requirements,” Johnson wrote. The guidelines include social distancing, wearing masks, and remote learning. If COVID-19 flares up in North Carolina, then those recommendations could become requirements, the state superintendent added. Education leaders should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to school reopening plans, Johnson wrote, and instead consider providing options to let school districts decide what works for them.