On Thursday, Gov. Cooper recommended that North Carolina municipalities and school boards end their mask mandate beginning on March 7, citing the improved vaccination rate and COVID-19’s declining virulence. Shortly after the governor’s press conference, state legislators passed the “Free the Smiles” bill, which makes masking in state public schools optional and at the discretion of individual families. In his Thursday press conference, Cooper indicated he did not support stripping local school boards of the authority to determine masking rules, setting up the possibility that he will veto the bill.
On Thursday North Carolina lawmakers approved new voting maps for both state legislative and congressional districts, meeting a deadline set by the NC Supreme Court after it found that maps drawn in 2021 were gerrymandered to ensure GOP control, a violation of the state constitution. The revised maps will now be reviewed by a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court with assistance from outside experts, called ”special masters.” While special masters are usually political scientists, the three-judge panel instead chose three well known former judges to advise them on this case. The 3-judge trial court panel, who have until Feb. 23 to render a decision, could approve the state legislature’s revised maps. Alternatively, per the NC Supreme Court decision, they could implement plans submitted by voting rights groups or ask the special masters to draw maps. It is possible the Superior Court decision could be appealed to the NC Supreme Court. The final maps will define voting districts for state elections from 2022 through 2030.
Health Care Policy
The Joint Legislative Committee on Access to Healthcare and Medicaid Expansion held its first meeting on Friday. Health policy experts presented data suggesting that Medicaid expansion does not have a negative impact on state budgets but does reduce state uninsured rates, narrow the insurance coverage gap between urban and rural areas, and increase access to care. Experts also explained that the federal government’s cost sharing levels for Medicaid – now at 90%- are written into the Social Security Act as law and cannot be changed except by new federal legislation. North Carolina is one of only 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Health Care Act. Gov. Cooper was unable to get House Republicans to consider Medicaid expansion as part of last year’s budget negotiations, but the budget did include a provision requiring lawmakers to study the issue. Co-chair Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) said the Joint Committee’s goal is to have a plan the legislature can implement early next year.
The NC Department of Environmental Quality denied Wake Stone a mining permit to develop a quarry next to Umstead State Park in Raleigh. The NC DEQ cited “significant adverse effects” from the quarry construction and operations that would be detrimental to the park’s purpose. Wake Stone plans to appeal the decision.