On Thursday Governor Cooper announced a set of prize incentives to encourage North Carolinians to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Residents 18 and up who get vaccinated or have already been vaccinated will be eligible for four cash drawings over eight weeks, with those who receive their vaccine after Thursday’s announcement entered twice for each drawing. Vaccinated North Carolinians between 12 and 18 will be eligible for four drawings of $125,000 college scholarships. The drawings will take place every other Wednesday starting on June 23.
The NC Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee moved forward three Republican-sponsored bills that would affect voting rights on Wednesday after significant debate. SB 326 would set a deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots at 5:00 PM the day of any election but does not include a provision from an earlier version of the bill that would require absentee ballot requests to be submitted 7 days before an election. SB 725 would prohibit boards of elections from accepting donations for election administration from private organizations. SB 724 would improve online voting portal accessibility for visually impaired voters, create a program to provide photo IDs to prospective voters who otherwise lack them, and mandate the State Board of Elections to develop an online voter registration system. Though this last bill claims to improve voting access, Democrats and civil rights groups worried that inconsistent and confusing systems and processes introduced by the bill could actually disenfranchise many North Carolinians.
On Monday the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Republican leaders of the two General Assembly chambers would not be able to step in to defend North Carolina’s voter ID law in court. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger had argued that Attorney General Josh Stein would not mount a strong defense of the law, given his opposition to it, but the divided court ruled that unless the lawmakers can show that Stein is “inadequately representing” the law in court -- what they say would be an “extraordinary” finding -- they will not be allowed to intervene. The federal case is scheduled to come to trial in January.
On Wednesday the NC House voted unanimously in favor of SB 722, which would require that municipal elections with one or more offices determined by districts be delayed from 2021 to 2022 to allow for redistricting. The bill would move City Council elections in Raleigh from October of this year to November of next, and it would also keep Raleigh’s elections on even-numbered years going forward. Other municipalities that need the census data to redraw their districts would hold their elections on March 8 (and subsequent dates, if necessary), at the same time as the statewide primary. The bill, which was amended in the House, has been sent back to the Senate for approval.
On Wednesday the NC House voted to delay the implementation of new K-12 social studies standards by one year as part of a COVID-19 relief bill, SB 654. Republicans have criticized the new standards for presenting U.S. history too negatively and backed the delay to the new curriculum in part because of this criticism. Many Democrats did not support the delay, with some saying that the change comes too close to the start of the next school year, and most voted against the bill, despite favoring other provisions in the bill.
Economic and Housing Policy
On Tuesday Republican legislative leaders released a statement about their plans for the 2021-2022 state budget. Though no budget agreement has yet been reached, the statement included an agreement to cap spending in the budget at $25.7 billion, $1.6 billion less than the budget proposed by Governor Cooper, as well as a plan to cut taxes. The plans did not include Medicaid expansion or a bond for school construction, both priorities of the Governor.
On Wednesday the NC Senate approved a bill that would cut personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, and other business taxes by over $2 billion over two years. Personal income tax rates would be lowered and the standard deduction raised, while the corporate income tax would be eliminated altogether over a period of five years. The bill is expected to be part of the budget package rolled out later in the summer.
On Wednesday the NC House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would support “esports” (competitive video gaming) in North Carolina. Under HB 945, esports events of sufficient size would receive a tax credit, and $7.5 million would be allocated to create an Esports Training and Education Center at NCSU and a mobile training unit that would travel around North Carolina. The bill has bipartisan support.
On Wednesday Governor Cooper issued an executive order to increase North Carolina’s usage of offshore wind power. The order calls for the state to aim to develop 2.8 gigawatts of offshore wind energy over the next decade and directs multiple agencies to collaborate to do so. By 2040, according to the order, offshore wind energy should generate 8 gigawatts, 25% percent of the state’s electricity consumption.
Health Care Policy
On Tuesday the NC House Health Committee approved two bills that would increase Medicaid funding to support pay raises for nursing home and group home staff and home health aides. Direct care workers for the elderly and disabled currently make an average of $10.50 an hour, and the fields have experienced significant worker shortages during the pandemic. The bills must pass through two committees before coming before the House.
Women’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights
On Thursday the NC Senate gave final approval to a bill that would ban abortions due to a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. The bill, which has been sent to Governor Cooper to sign or veto, would require that a doctor submit any testing results for Down syndrome as well as an attestation that the abortion was not sought because of the fetus’s presumed race or a diagnosis of Down syndrome. A spokesperson for the NC branch of the ACLU said that the bill “presents an unconstitutional ban on abortions before viability.”
On Tuesday the NC Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would make malicious online impersonation a felony. HB 341 would allow felony charges for “anyone ‘knowingly and without consent’ impersonating someone else online for ’purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person.’" Though some lawmakers were concerned that an amendment added by Senator Warren Daniel (R-Burke) to classify "fictitious communications designed to elicit a response" as an "unfair and deceptive trade practice" might be overly broad, the bill passed the committee with “no audible dissent.”
On Friday an Alamance County Superior Court judge ruled that videos of the law enforcement response to a protest last fall in Graham must be released in full. A coalition of news organizations had sued for their release. On October 31, “law enforcement officers...pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters, Democratic election observers and a photographer for the local newspaper.” Judge Andrew Hanford found that the city and county governments failed to show a compelling government interest in blurring or redacting the videos, and the videos may now be released to the public soon.