Cooper vetoes Free the Smiles Act

Gov. Roy Cooper at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — In the late afternoon of Feb. 24, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 173 (Free the Smiles Act). The bill would have given parents back the power to decide whether or not to mask their children in public school settings.

This is Cooper’s 71st veto as governor. He now holds 67% (71 of 106) of all vetoes issued by NC Governors.

In his veto message, the governor said he has “encouraged local boards to lift mask mandates” and that “they are doing across the state with the advice of health officials who see that COVID metrics are declining and vaccinations are increasing.”

Cooper’s veto message also said the bill was “passed for political purposes” and reiterated previous remarks that people – in this case, parents – should not be able to “pick and choose” what health rules they follow.

“Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future,” wrote Cooper.

At a Feb. 17 COVID media briefing, Cooper characterized the General Assembly’s activities to advance the bill as “frantic.”

“I know they are looking at something today and they are very frantic about it,” Cooper said when asked if he would veto Senate Bill 173. “From what I know about it, I have concerns that it is unwise and irresponsible. I mean, are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they are going to follow?”

“I am disappointed that Gov. Cooper has vetoed this common-sense bill,” North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said in a statement. “All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats.” Moore continued, “Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates. Return this decision back to parents.”

Moore’s press release did not mention whether or not the House would consider an override vote of Cooper’s veto. His Communications Director Demi Dowdy tells North State Journal that the House Speaker will continue to put pressure on government officials to take action.

In a tweet, Moore said, “This isn’t over. Looking forward to overriding @NC_Governor’s veto and returning this decision to parents, where it belongs.”

A veto override would have to begin in the Senate where the bill originated.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) also issued a statement that it was “past time to return decision-making power to parents.”

“Gov. Cooper continues to work against parents and ignore the science that shows children are at a lower risk for developing severe illness but are having development setbacks because of masking,” said Ballard. “That science hasn’t changed for months. The only thing that has changed is the political science, and Gov. Cooper knows that.”

The vast majority of North Carolina’s public school districts have moved or seem to be in the process of considering a move to mask optional policies.

At the end of January, out of the state’s 115 school districts, only 44 districts had chosen to go mask optional whereas 71 were still requiring a mask.

As of Feb. 25, the number of mask optional districts rose to 97. Orange County is not included in the mask optional total as its school board tied dropping masks in schools with the lifting of the countywide mandate.

The remaining 18 mask-required districts all have upcoming meetings on the matter within the next two weeks.

About A.P. Dillon 1208 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_