Republicans try again to rein in governor's emergency powers

The House voted Thursday to pare back the governor's powers in a statewide emergency.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The House voted Thursday to pare back the governor's powers in a statewide emergency.

The proposal, which now heads to the Senate after the House's 64-49 vote, would force the governor to get buy-in from other state officials before closing businesses or exercising other emergency powers.

It comes as the General Assembly's Republican majority struggles with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, over his coronavirus response, which closed a wide swath of businesses in recent months. Senate Bill 105 would require Cooper, and future governors, to get consent from a majority of the Council of State to take such actions.

The council is made up of North Carolina government's 10 statewide elected officials: the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, the state auditor, the treasurer, the attorney general, the commissioners of agriculture, labor and insurance and the superintendent of public instruction. The council currently has six Republicans and four Democrats.

"These are huge, huge decisions for our state," said Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell. "A serious problem requires the wisdom of more than just one person."

House Speaker Tim Moore agreed.

"You now have the governor acting unilaterally, with nobody else’s consent, nobody else’s advice, basically adopting these laws by fiat," said Moore, R-Cleveland.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said Cooper has based his actions on the data about the spread of coronavirus in the state.

"The numbers of cases support every action he has made," said Jackson, D-Wake. "What I hear from my Republican friends is reopen, reopen, reopen and that the numbers are fake or they’re not really bad."

Hall noted that a statewide requirement Cooper issued Wednesday that people cover their faces in public to limit the spread of coronavirus is already getting pushback from sheriffs who refuse to enforce it and from members of the public who say they have no intention of wearing masks.

"In an emergency situation like a pandemic, it's important that the government have credibility so that folks will follow the instructions of the government," he said. "A vote of the Council of State – folks who are elected statewide – would ensure credibility to the folks across this state. They would understand that it's not merely the decision of one person."

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said earlier Thursday that his caucus hadn't discussed the measure, but that he's in favor of it.

"I actually believe that, in many respects, if you look at the current law, that's what [the governor[ should have done," Berger, R-Rockingham, said of Council of State approval.

Ultimately, Cooper is likely to veto the bill. He has already vetoed two legislative bids to undo his closure orders, one of which had similar language in it about Council of State approval of his actions.

Republicans said the governor shouldn't have such wide authority. They noted that Cooper initially sought Council of State approval for his closure orders, but as Republican members resisted, he began citing other sections of state law, arguing they allowed him to move forward without agreement. This bill would remove that authority.

"Businesses have been shut down," Hall said Wednesday night during initial debate on the bill. "People have lost their livelihoods. Children have lost time in school. People aren't allowed to visit loved ones in hospitals. ... Such absolute authority is not compatible with representative democracy."

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson pushed back, saying no one voted for state auditor thinking she'd be deciding how the state responds to a pandemic.

"I don't think anybody elected her to make these emergency management decisions," said Jackson, D-Wake.

The bill also limits the state secretary of health's ability to declare places an "imminent hazard" and close them. Cooper's administration recently used the imminent hazard section of state law to close Ace Speedway, a race track in Alamance County that had defied Cooper's closure orders.

The legislature is likely to finish this legislative session Thursday, and bills are moving at a rapid pace.

Following are some that passed Wednesday:

University lawsuit immunity

The House sent a bill to the Senate that would protect universities from lawsuits seeking tuition refunds from the spring semester.

Many of those classes moved online in March because of the pandemic, and lawmakers said class-action suits seeking refunds have popped up in other states. Senate Bill 208 seeks to block that in North Carolina.

The bill cleared the House 118-1. The Senate is likely to take it up Thursday.

Thursday update: This measure passed the Senate as well and is headed to the governor.
Hospital visitors bill
A bill that once guaranteed family members the right to visit loved ones in the hospital got initial approval in the House Wednesday, but it has morphed so much that the bill's Senate sponsor said he'd rather nothing pass.

Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, said this latest version of Senate Bill 730 "more or less adopts what the hospitals are doing now." It used to say hospitals couldn't stop patients from designating at least one visitor.

Many facilities have ratcheted down on visits to avoid viral transmission during the pandemic.

Bill critics have said the Senate's proposal ran afoul of federal hospital regulations. The House version allows visitors only if they don't infringe on "others' rights or safety, or is medically or therapeutically contra-indicated."

The bill also has $10 million in it for a coronavirus testing and contact tracing initiative through the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It needs another House vote Thursday to move back to the Senate.

DOT bill to governor

House Bill 77 also makes a number of cuts to the state Department of Transportation budget to deal with a funding shortfall. The measure comes after a critical audit identified more than $700 million in overspending at the department.

Under the bill, a number of board appointments made now by the governor would go to General Assembly leadership instead.

The governor is expected to sign the bill.

Foster care bill

A long-discussed bill to make it easier to take children from drug-addicted mothers cleared the Senate Wednesday on a near party-line vote.

House Bill 918 sparked passionate debate in the chamber. It was similarly controversial in the House last year, when it started a long and winding path to this point.

The bill returns now to the House for more debate, and its ultimate fate is unclear. The measure makes it easier for foster parents to take permanent custody of a child if the parents have drug problems.

Democrats worried the bill would make mothers less likely to seek prenatal care, lest they lose their children. They also said the bill would have a disparate impact on Black mothers.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, who has fought for this bill for more than a year, said the measure would help parents get treatment, but she acknowledged that the bill doesn't include new treatment funding.

The measure says parents wouldn't lose their right to be reunited with their child if they stay in a treatment program.

Thursday update: This measure passed the House as well Thursday, 59-53, and is headed to the governor.


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