Opinion: CJ Opinion

General Assembly faces new challenges as the 2021 session gets underway

House Speaker Tim Moore, right, and Senate leader Phil Berger. (CJ file photo)
House Speaker Tim Moore, right, and Senate leader Phil Berger. (CJ file photo)

With a ceremonial swearing in and social distanced pomp and circumstance on January 13, the 2021-22 biennial session of the North Carolina General Assembly officially began. After a brief organizational break, they returned on January 27 ready to work.

The new House consists of 69 Republicans and 51 Democrats; 91 men, 29 women; 22 new members; and 24 African-Americans. The 2021 Senate consists of 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats; 34 men, 16 women; 10 new members; and 12 African-Americans.

First elected to the NC House in 2002, Tim Moore was elected unanimously by his House colleagues to serve as Speaker for a 4th term. The NC Senate was also unanimous in electing Phil Berger, the longest serving member of the Senate, as the President Pro Tempore for a 6th term. Mark Robinson, a Republican and NC’s first African American lieutenant governor, serves as the president of the Senate for the next four years.

Democrat Roy Cooper remains governor. Cooper has veto power over all bills except constitutional amendments, redistricting plans, and local bills. In his previous four year term, Cooper vetoed 53 bills, more than all other past governors combined. The governor didn’t receive veto power in until 1996, during Gov. Jim Hunt’s tenure. House Republicans need three Democrats to join with them to override any of Cooper’s vetoes this session; Senate Republicans need two Democrats to support any veto overrides.

Barring any new emergencies, look for this session to consist of three phases:

  1. Immediate Covid-19 response and recovery;
  2. The state budget in later spring with a budget passed and sent to the governor before the end of the fiscal year and;
  3. The decennial redistricting of congressional and legislative districts in late summer or early fall. With COVID-19, a compilation of the census reports are delayed.

The almost year-long pandemic has affected everyone and everything from health care to education to the economy. Cooper’s executive orders have devastated businesses. Record numbers of individuals are unemployed through no fault of their own. Schools have gone to online learning, decimating a more holistic educational approach. Domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, and mental health issues are affecting families and individuals every day.

Covid-19 response and recovery will drive the new General Assembly for the next few months. Last year, North Carolina received over $3.5 billion of the $2 trillion federal funds to address the pandemic’s impact. These funds, under restrictions designated by Congress, were appropriated by the General Assembly for among other things, small business loans, support for online education, broadband access, vaccination rollout, and school support. A report on the disbursement of the funds from The Office of State Budget and Management is due to the Legislative Joint Oversight Committee on General Government on March 21. Congress approved an additional $900 billion for unemployment benefits, food, rental, and child care assistance to the states; North Carolina will receive over $1 billion. The General Assembly must ensure that any emergency funds address pandemic caused needs and do not expand or create new government programs. The sooner North Carolinians can get back on their feet, providing for themselves and their families and not dependent on government, the better.

The governor’s wide-sweeping powers under NC’s Emergency Management Act need to be re-aligned with the reality of an emergency lasting nine months or longer. Enacted in 1977, the intent of the act was to authorize one person (the governor) to respond to an emergency for “prevention of, preparation for, response to, and recovery from natural or man-made emergencies or hostile military or paramilitary action” to keep citizens safe, commerce intact, and ensure a quick recovery. It was never intended for one person to have the power to close businesses, shut down schools and bring an economy to a screeching halt for months on end. The law should be amended to put time frames where the governor would concur with the Council of State and receive legislature approval. It’s a question of good government; no matter who is the governor.

During the pandemic, through numerous executive orders, some regulations have been waived that should be made permanent. Specifically in Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 130, removing certificate of need requirements to free up hospital beds, dialysis stations and ambulatory surgical centers and MRIs as needed was a good idea then and a good idea post-pandemic. Other reforms include a loosening of restrictions on child care facilities, increase access to health care workers by allowing license reciprocity across state lines, and allowing retired health care workers and students and volunteers to work within their skill and competency levels to increase care. Ensuring the coordinated delivery of telehealth/telemedicine were all good ideas during an emergency. They are good ideas now that need to continue.

School choice options like opportunity scholarships, charter schools, and support for homeschoolers need to be expanded. Educational savings accounts that offer flexibility to pay for what individual students need should be expanded as well. Restrictions on good charter schools should be rolled back. Bureaucratic interference with parent-driven homeschools and learning pods should be prohibited. Traditional public schools will always serve the majority of our students and should be allowed more flexibility in funding and allocation of resources.

Fiscally responsible decisions by lawmakers have made the revenue outlook in North Carolina better than most states.

The COVID-19 pandemic that defined 2020 is not over yet.  Look for the 2021 General Assembly to aggressively address North Carolina’s needs this month. The state budget and redistricting of legislative and congressional districts will follow later once the pandemic is under control and NC’s economy is back on track. Smart decisions now will pay off later.