On March 17, the NC House passed Joint House Resolution 172 endorsing a US constitutional convention for the purpose of writing a congressional term-limit amendment. The resolution was approved largely along party lines, although some Republicans opposed the measure on the grounds that a constitutional convention -- unlimited in scope by law -- could allow for a wholesale edit of the U.S. Constitution.
A bill that would classify disciplinary records of state employees as public records was filed in the NC Senate on Thursday. Currently, the dismissals, suspensions and demotions of state or local government employees are considered public records. SB 355, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, would also make public the reasons for suspensions, demotions and other moves and would also require local government agencies to make performance records public. The State Employees Association of NC expressed concerns that the proposed bill will violate due process protections and could lead to “massive liability” for the state, but lawyers for the media say open access to these records will increase public confidence in state and local government.
Starting April 7 all adults aged 16 to 65 will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and on March 31 additional Group 4 essential workers as well as people living in group settings, including students living in dorms, can be vaccinated. A new initiative by the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Healthier Together: Health Equity Action Network, will focus on increasing vaccination rates in historically marginalized populations. As of Thursday, 20% of adults in North Carolina have been fully vaccinated.
Governor Cooper announced a new executive order easing statewide COVID-19 restrictions. Under Executive Order 204 mask mandates and other social distancing requirements remain in effect, but more businesses will be able to operate at increased capacity, and both indoor and outdoor crowd limits have been increased.
In a contentious meeting on Tuesday, Republican members of the NC Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee accused State Board of Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell of illegally changing voting rules ahead of the 2020 election in order to advantage Democratic voters. Brinson Bell responded by pointing out that the board’s actions changed rules but not underlying laws, were designed to ensure all votes could be counted in light of the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, were unanimously agreed to by all members of the SBE, and were upheld in a series of court challenges. Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) said, “It seems that some Republican legislators want to both accept the outcome of the elections that they won, some by very close margins… but then they want to also cast doubt on the work that you have done in the security of our election.”
A bill that would temporarily allow the UNC System president to cut salaries and lay off employees without approval from the Office of State Human Resources, as is currently required, cleared the NC House Committee on Education-Universities. HB 243, which has bipartisan support, is aimed at streamlining the UNC System’s efforts to mitigate financial losses attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Governor Cooper summarized the items he wants the state legislature to include in the 2021 budget, emphasizing teacher and state employee raises, Medicaid expansion, and infrastructure support. The NC legislature is responsible for writing a state budget in odd-number years, with minor adjustments made in even-number years. The state House and Senate take turns in proposing the budget, and this year the Senate will take the lead, with the process expected to begin soon. The Governor’s proposals received support from the North Carolina Association of Educators and the State Employees Association of NC, both of which cited his support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Republicans were generally critical of the amount of spending in Cooper’s budget and continued to express a lack of support for Medicaid expansion.
SB 211, a bill to allow private water companies to request approval for rate increases in 3-year increments, received a favorable committee hearing and is likely to be voted on by the full NC Senate on Monday. Proponents say that under this plan companies will be able to plan capital improvements further ahead, saving them the costs of routinely going before the North Carolina Utilities Commission and potentially passing those savings along to consumers. A House version (HB 219) had bipartisan support and has already passed that chamber.
In his 2021-23 comprehensive budget proposal presented to the state legislature, Gov. Cooper included substantial increases in funding for the NC Dept. of Environmental Quality. This funding includes money to address flood mitigation and water infrastructure projects and to hire personnel needed to deal with the environmental consequences of climate change. It also provides money to deal with contaminants like PFAS and their impact on drinking water, help develop clean energy programs, and help local governments and schools transition to zero-emission school buses.
Health Care Policy
Two substantially identical bills (HB 347 and HB 348) that would require every public and charter school in the state to employ a nurse were introduced in the NC House. Currently school districts employee only one school nurse for every 1,000 students. More than half of those nurses serve more than one school. The National Association of School Nurses recommends schools employ one nurse for every 750 students. In addition to filing SB 331, a companion bill to HB 347, Senate Democrats filed a bill (SB 154) to fully fund school psychologists and social workers. HB 348 had one Republican sponsor.
On Monday Republican legislators introduced a bill that would ban transgender women from participating on women’s athletic teams at public schools and universities. The “Save Women’s Sports Act” states that “sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.” It would require all schools in the state to designate teams as male, female, or co-ed and would also apply to any charter or private school that competed with state schools in sporting events. The law would preempt existing regulations that already regulate how transgender students participate in sports in ways consistent with their gender identity. The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union County), said he’s not aware of any controversies involving transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams but said it’s only a matter of time unless the legislature stops it now. Republican legislators introduced HB 358 on the anniversary of HB2, the 2016 bill that required people in schools and other government buildings to use the bathroom matching their birth certificate and banned cities and counties from passing any pro-LGBTQ discrimination protections.
On Tuesday, NC House Democrats filed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act ( HB 354) after NC Senate Democrats indicated last week that they would pursue similar legislation. The bill was prompted by a mass shooting in Atlanta that targeted Asian-American women and would increase the punishment for any crime that targets someone based on their "race, ethnicity, color, religion, nationality, country of origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability, or sexual orientation.” Hate crimes legislation has been filed in the two previous legislative sessions in the NC General Assembly but has never received a committee hearing.
With a vote of 45 to 0, the NC Senate passed a bill that would raise the minimum age for criminal prosecution to 10 years. Under current NC law, children as young as 6 years of age can face criminal charges. SB 207 now heads to the House.