Legislative notebook: Wake senator leaves session to get coronavirus test

A rundown of the late action as the General Assembly tries to wrap up this session.

Posted Updated
NC Legislative Building
Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Sen. Sam Searcy, D-Wake, left the state's waning legislative session Thursday afternoon to get a coronavirus test.

The freshman senator said he received word at about 1:45 p.m. that a worker in his office building – not the General Assembly, but for his regular job – tested positive for the virus.

"Out of an abundance of caution, I will be submitting an excused absence from voting for the rest of today, and I’ll be going to get tested," Searcy tweeted. "Stay safe, wear masks!"

Pope named to UNC BOG

The Senate named businessman Art Pope, a former House member and one of the state's biggest conservative donors, to the UNC Board of Governors on Thursday.

There was no debate on the Senate floor, despite Pope's status as the self-described "boogeyman" of North Carolina's political left.

The vote was 32-15. All the no votes came from Democrats, but four Senate Democrats voted for Pope's election, including Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue.

Pope will fill the year or so left on former state Sen. Bob Rucho's term on the board, which sets policy for the state university system. Rucho resigned late last week.

Pope said Thursday that he might serve longer if asked but that he would reassess after a year.

Some Democrats bashed the pick on social media when it was announced Wednesday night, but they held their tongues on the Senate floor. In an interview, Pope, who owns a chain of discount stores, acknowledged the work he's done to elect Republicans in North Carolina but said he's gotten an outsized reputation and that he can and will work across the political aisle.

"I was made a boogeyman back in 2009, 2010, and it's kind of lasted on since then," he said. "I think I hopefully can smooth things down and reach out to the other side, which is the real Art Pope, versus the left-wing-blog character."

Freedom Park funded

Lawmakers approved $1.5 million for a new statue park in downtown Raleigh honoring African-American contributions.

This is the long-discussed "Freedom Park" project. The park was funded in last year's state budget, but the governor vetoed that budget as part of a much broader fight with General Assembly Republicans.

The funding was paired in recent weeks with another $2.5 million to add statues honoring African-Americans in North Carolina on Capitol Qquare and to add new signs providing context for Confederate monuments there. That plan was laid aside after protesters tore down some Confederate statues on the square and the governor had others removed.

The $1.5 million was then added to a longer bill that also funds major building projects at the University of North Carolina at Chapl Hill, which gets funding for a business school and nursing school renovations, North Carolina State University, which gets funding for a STEM building, and Fayetteville State University, which would have a dormitory demolished.

The measure, Senate Bill 212, also creates a new grant program for satellite broadband providers. It cleared the Senate unanimously and the House 101-4.

$500 million in coronavirus funding passed

The House and the Senate agreed Thursday on another coronavirus bill, allocating $500 million in federal dollars.

House Bill 1023 includes another $150 million for local governments. It also reworks some of the funding lawmakers approved during an April session. Among other things, a $5 million public relations effort for socially distanced tourism in North Carolina was boosted to $15 million.

The measure also includes $3.5 million for a nonprofit in Greenville, which will run a GPS monitoring project tracking people accused of domestic violence.

Medicaid transformation penalties dropped

A compromise bill to boost Medicaid spending by more than $460 million is headed to the governor, and while it keeps a new deadline in place for the state's long-discussed Medicaid transformation project, multimillion-dollar penalties that the state once would have faced for missing that deadline were dropped from the bill.

Senate Bill 808 funds the Medicaid re-base – the annual refiguring of what the taxpayer-funded health insurance program for children, the disabled and elderly people should cost. The bill also includes $100 million in new funding to expand coronavirus testing and contact tracing in North Carolina and $15 million for the state Department of Health and Human Services to relocate its headquarters from the Dorothea Dix campus to a new location inside Wake County.

The bill sets a July 2021 start date for transformation, the quasi-privatization of Medicaid management that the state has discussed for years. The changeover was delayed last year as part of a broader budget fight between Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly's Republican majority.

This bill once included $4 million penalties, due to each of the five contractors set to take a larger role in running the state's Medicaid program if the state didn't hit its deadline, but that language was dropped from the final bill.

The bill cleared the Senate unanimously and the House 111-2.

Debt bill left undone

Lawmakers wrapped up their work early Friday without cracking down on debt settlement companies, leaving unfinished a bill that essentially would have shut down the industry in North Carolina.

House Bill 1067 targets practices that are already illegal, but settlement companies operate through a loophole, bill supporters said, targeting people with high debt and bad credit with bait-and-switch tactics and high-fee loans.

The measure cleared the House easily but didn't make it to the Senate floor. Senate leaders said they hoped bill supporters would work out a compromise with the industry, which hired nearly a dozen lobbyists to make their case in North Carolina.

Those negotiations broke down earlier this week.

Bill supporters said the legislation was particularly important now, with many people out of work and facing financial crisis.

Hospital visit guarantee fizzles

Lawmakers also wrapped things up Friday without passing legislation to guarantee hospital patients the right to have at least one visitor.

Senate Bill 730 failed despite a late addition of $100 million to fund a new grant program for small businesses struggling because of coronavirus shutdowns. The bill also had $10 million in it for virus tracing through the Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Senate had pressed for legislation that would have rolled back visitation restrictions at hospitals. The House wouldn't go along, siding with hospitals across the state and proposing language Senate negotiators found too weak.

Robots can make deliveries

The legislature finalized a bill Thursday afternoon to allow and regulate remote control deliveries – small robots that can carry packages to people's homes.

Senate Bill 739 requires these devices to have an operator who can take control of the robot. The devices would be treated much like pedestrians, able to move around on sidewalks and, if no sidewalk is available, on roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or lower.

Their max speed on sidewalks would be 10 mph under the bill. On roads, it would be 20 mph, and they'd be required to stay as far right as possible and obey all traffic signals.

They'd have to yield the right of way to everyone else and be lit up at night. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House 114-1 with Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, voting against.

Gun rules loosened

More people in North Carolina could carry their concealed weapons while working and while attending church in a measure given final legislative approval late Thursday.

The House and Senate voted for the compromise bill, sending it to Cooper.

The bill would allow people with concealed permits to carry their handgun at a religious place of worship that is also the location of a private school. A permit holder could carry the gun only outside of the school's operating hours.

Two more categories of workers also would be allowed to wear their concealed weapons in some situations. They include emergency medical technicians who work with SWAT teams. Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, also mentioned the case of an administrative assistant who works the front desk of a police department alone and gets permission from the police chief to carry.


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