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NC lawmakers pass another reopening bill at session's end, but drop others

Posted June 26, 2020 3:10 a.m. EDT
Updated June 26, 2020 3:37 a.m. EDT

— Wrapping up their work for this year's regular session early Friday morning, lawmakers sent yet another reopening bill to the governor as they headed for the exits. But several others were abandoned amid tensions between the House and the Senate as the night wore on.

The one bill that survived the end of session would reopen gyms and fitness centers.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill containing similar language last Friday, citing a provision in it that would limit the power of the governor and health officials to respond quickly to a surge in cases. The House failed Wednesday in an attempt to override the veto.

The newer version, House Bill 806, contains the same reopening language but doesn't include the limits on the power of the governor or local health officials.

"In one day, he can shut them down. It gives him immediate flexibility," said Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance. "Let's get these gyms open at a capacity that protects the health and safety of our citizens, gives them the economic lifeline that they are begging for and gives the governor that power that he needs."

"Pushing our economy to reopen before it's safe is a recipe for disaster." countered Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, citing the latest outbreak numbers. "We can bring back business, but we can't bring back lives."

The bill passed the Senate 35-12 with seven Democratic votes. The House passed it early Friday morning with no debate, 75-32, sending it to Cooper.

Sweepstakes fears scuttle playground bill

Another bill currently on the governor's desk would reopen amusement parks and fairs, but it includes the same limiting language as the vetoed bills and will likely suffer the same fate in the coming days.

A newer version, House Bill 795, would reopen amusement parks, "gaming establishments" with video games, arcades and public playgrounds without limiting the governor's power to close them again if needed.

Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, urged his fellow senators to think of a young boy in Mitchell County deprived of entertainment.

"He's got a great big alligator tear rolling down his face," Britt said, adding that Mitchell County has had no coronavirus cases in children under 18.

Twenty-six infections have been reported by doctors in Mitchell County.

The bill passed the Senate 33-14 with four Democratic votes, and it initially passed the House 79-30 with little debate.

But minutes later, after House members realized it would likely open sweepstakes parlors as well as arcades, it was reconsidered and sent back to committee to remove the problematic language and never resurfaced.

House skips votes on bars, bowling alleys bills

Shortly before 2 a.m. Friday, a third reopening bill for outdoor service at bars and additional temporary outdoor dining space at restaurants was added to the calendar in both chambers.

Like the others, House Bill 663 is modeled on an earlier bill that was vetoed because it restricted the governor's power to close those businesses again if the outbreak worsens. The bill passed the Senate 30-10 with no debate, but the House removed it from consideration.

Senate Bill 432, which would reopen bowling alleys, skating rinks, event venues and outdoor dining at stadiums, was rolled out about 2:30 a.m. in the Senate. Like the others, it would reopen businesses with restrictions and without limiting the governor's power to close them.

It passed the Senate 23-10 with no debate, but it, too, was not taken up by the House.

Limits put on governor's emergency powers

The subject line of a statement from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger makes clear the intent of the latest bills: "Republicans to Call Democrats' Bluff, Send 'Clean' Reopening Bills to Governor."

The news release cites comments by House and Senate Democrats saying they could support some reopening bills if they didn't limit the governor's powers to close businesses again if needed.

"I'm sick of Democrats hiding behind technical disagreements about the separation of powers," the release quotes Gunn as saying. "These new bills strip the governor and the Democrats of the objection they've lodged to the reopening bills. Enough is enough – let's get these businesses open."

Another bill headed for the governor's desk, however, would do the opposite. Senate Bill 105 would limit the governor's emergency powers – the sixth such bill Republican leaders have sent Cooper this session.

The measure would require the governor to obtain the approval of the Council of State, currently majority Republican, for any state of emergency declaration that goes beyond 30 days or any closure of a class of businesses statewide.

House Republicans called Cooper's response "a failure" and said North Carolina is lagging behind other states in reopening its economy.

"You now have the governor acting unilaterally with nobody else’s consent, nobody else’s advice – basically adopting these laws by fiat," House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters Thursday.

Democrats pointed out that the measure would give the nine other Council of State members a new collective veto power over the governor.

"The numbers of cases support every action he has made," contended House Minority Leader Darren Jackson. "What I hear from my Republican friends is reopen, reopen, reopen and that the numbers are fake or they’re not really bad."

After a fiery House debate Wednesday night, the measure passed a final House vote on party lines Thursday with little debate, 64-49. The Senate voted 26-17 on party lines early Friday morning to send it to Cooper, who is widely expected to veto it.

Lawmakers will take next week off and return July 7 to consider veto overrides. After that week, they will recess until Sept. 2, when they'll return for two days to deal with any additional federal coronavirus relief funds and, under the rules they set for themselves in their adjournment resolution, very little else.

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