News: Quick Takes

Speaker urges governor to sign bill reopening bars, says money is tight for next budget year

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. (CJ file photo)
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. (CJ file photo)

Gov. Roy Cooper should stop picking winners and losers in business as he reopens North Carolina’s economy, says N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. 

Moore called out Cooper during a Thursday, May 28, news conference, saying he hopes the governor will sign newly passed legislation allowing bars to reopen during Phase Two of the governor’s COVID-19 plan. Under Executive Order 141, only restaurants are allowed to welcome guests for in-house dining at 50% capacity. Restaurants make at least 30% of their profits from food, but also sell alcohol. Breweries, wineries, and distilleries, too, have been allowed to reopen under Cooper’s plan. But private bars and clubs, which make money mostly from alcohol, are blocked. 

The rule doesn’t make sense, Moore told reporters. Bars are fully able to comply with social distancing standards. Protocols are in place. 

House Bill 536, which got the green light at the General Assembly Thursday, would “treat all beverage and dining service establishments the same and allow them to operate at 50% of total capacity,” says a news release from Moore’s office.

The bill also would allow all dining and drinking establishments to expand their serving capacity if outdoor space is available.

“We are hoping the governor will sign that bill,” Moore said.

Moore discussed several other issues during the news conference. 

North Carolina is probably facing a $4.2-billion shortfall in its budget for the next year. Lawmakers aren’t panicking, Moore said, but the legislature is getting creative as it crafts a plan.

Lawmakers will pass several narrow spending bills, Moore said, chipping away at state expenses bit by bit.

The strategy is unsurprising, said Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation. 

“From a practical standpoint, it could save time,” Kokai said. “Lawmakers can move forward relatively quickly with the least controversial proposals, saving the most contentious items for later in the legislative session.”

It’s an interesting political move for Republicans, who last year reached a budget stalemate with Cooper over Medicaid expansion. This year, things could look different if the budget is chopped into smaller pieces. 

“If Republican lawmakers put forward wildly popular budget provisions in standalone bills, they will present a series of tough choices for Democrats,” Kokai said. “First, Democratic legislators will have to decide whether to endorse those proposals from their political foes. Then Cooper will have to decide whether to risk some political capital issuing vetoes.”

“Finally, Democratic lawmakers will have to weigh the risks of angering either their constituents or their party’s political leader when the budget bills return for veto override votes,” Kokai concluded. 

Budget cuts are inevitable, Moore said Thursday, since the legislature is still awaiting new guidance from the federal government about how it can spend $2 billion leftover from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Lawmakers want to use the money to fill holes left by late and unpaid taxes, but that’s not allowed under current rules. 

Moore, along with Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, have expressed hope the rules will change. 

For now, the legislature holds significant savings — a reserve of $1.7 billion. The state also has roughly $2.7 billion leftover from last year’s budget stalemate — when Cooper’s veto was never overturned. 

North Carolina needs every penny, Moore said. 

“We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re pulling the cushions off the sofas in the waiting room looking for change, but that’s probably next,” he said.