State lawmakers take step toward blocking records provision

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Members of the North Carolina House of Representatives at the General Assembly (Christine T. Nguyen | The North State Journal)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly took a step on Monday toward canceling a provision that addresses the confidentiality of death investigation records. The item has served for days as a rallying cry for civil rights demonstrators outside Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Mansion.

The House Rules Committee recommended repealing the provision, which was contained in a broader health measure that the General Assembly approved in late June with large, bipartisan majorities. The House is schedule to vote on the measure Tuesday.

Cooper, a Democrat, had until midnight to sign the broader bill already sent to his desk or veto it. If he did neither, the bill turns into law. North Carolina governors can’t issue line-item vetoes. Cooper’s public comment last week about the bill and a letter to a top lawmaker suggested the bill would become law, but that the executive and legislative branches would work to repeal the records provision quickly.

Protesters have been camped outside the Mansion since last week, demanding that Cooper veto the measure. They claim the provision runs counter to the calls for racial justice that have intensified in North Carolina since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some protesters at the Mansion have been arrested.

The provision would make clear that death investigation records held by law enforcement and deemed confidential under public records law retain that same confidentiality when handed to a state medical examiner. Public records and prisoner advocates contend it could make investigations into deaths occurring in police custody or at a jail less transparent.

In a letter last week to Senate Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon, Cooper asked that the General Assembly repeal the records provision this week. Cooper said the language was made public for months and received no opposition until after it passed the General Assembly. But he said the rest of the measure contained several important provisions sought by his Department of Health and Human Services, some of which will help the state draw down millions of dollars in federal funds. Those will remain in effect.

“I have concerns about unintended consequences of (the records provision) based upon the input of stakeholders, and respectfully request that the General Assembly repeal the provision” when lawmakers return, Cooper told Rabon. He asked that the repeal be either passed in a standalone bill or with other “noncontroversial legislation.”

The bill that cleared the House Rules Committee did contain other legislation addressing face coverings. The bill would make permanent a health exemption on the state’s face mask ban, which is otherwise set to expire Aug. 1. But it also would let business owners and operators avoid civil and criminal liability from Cooper’s current statewide face coverings mandate and other local mandates as long as they post signs at the front of their establishments requiring customers to follow the rule.

The Senate also would have to approve any repeal measure before it goes to Cooper. Senators aren’t expected to return to work until Wednesday. The Republican-controlled legislature could consider several veto override votes before they adjourn, likely until September. Cooper vetoed eight bills last week, several of which were related to Republican attempts to essentially overturn Cooper’s executive orders that have kept certain businesses shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.