NC Senate Democrats uphold governor’s veto of Free the Smiles Act

Senate override was three votes shy of the three-fifths majority needed

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

RALEIGH — On Mar. 9, the General Assembly Senate Democrats took upheld Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 173, the Free the Smiles Act.

The bill would have given parents the power to opt their children out of mask requirements in public school units.  Parents have expressed concern that without a veto override, districts may think they have the power to mask their children at will.

The override fell short of the three-fifths needed with 27 Republicans voting yes and 22 Democrats voting no. Absent from the vote was Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon).

“Gov. Cooper and the Senate Democrats are working against parents,” Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee said in a statement. “This bill provides a level playing field for all families across the state since politicians continue to ignore the parents who are speaking up for their children.”

“It’s disheartening that the Senate Democrats would choose to turn their backs on families and disregard the effects masking has on our young children,” said Ballard.

Two of the Democrats upholding the veto were Sens. Ben Clark and Kirk deViere, both had originally voted to pass the bill.

On Twitter, deViere issued a statement to justify his vote to uphold the veto.

“I have consistently fought for the people of my community and what’s right for parents, children, business owners, and those that just want the government to work for them,” wrote deViere. “The Governor’s veto in no way jeopardizes the current policy that allows our local school leaders working with parents to continue common sense policies like optional mask wearing.”

In a social media post by Cooper the day before the override vote in the Senate, the governor came out backing deViere’s primary opponent, Val Applewhite, a former Fayetteville City Council member and failed Fayetteville mayoral candidate.

Cooper said that Applewhite “isn’t afraid to stand up to Right Wing Republicans as we work to build a state where everyone has an equal chance to prosper.”

deViere took to Twitter the same day in response to Cooper’s endorsement of Applewhite.

“Since my first days in office, my focus has been locked in on the hard-working people of Fayetteville and Cumberland County,” deViere said in his statement. “Whenever I got to Raleigh, I was asked to ignore the interests of Cumberland to “hold the party line.” Meanwhile, folks back home – many of whom are struggling to get by – are sick and tired of the partisan gridlock that shows zero results for the people.

deViere described his work in the Senate before turning to a veiled reference to Cooper interfering by backing Applewhite.

Communities deserve to choose their own representatives. I’m confident that the voters of Cumberland understand what’s at stake and will choose the voice that best represents their interests – not the interests of partisan Raleigh politicians,” deViere wrote. “No endorsement, even from the highest position in the state, will waiver my commitment to represent the people of Fayetteville and Cumberland to the best of my ability.”

deViere continued, “My vote has and will always be with the people of our community. This primary challenge is a direct result of putting my community over partisan politics and not being a rubber stamp. Together we can send a message that working families have had enough of the power politics and that this seat belongs to you, the people of Cumberland County.”

Currently, 109 of the state’s 115 districts have either voted to go mask optional or are in the process of doing so. The remaining six still requiring masks include Bertie, Durham, Chapel Hill Carrboro, Hertford and Northampton. Chapel Hill Carrboro has voted to move to mask “recommended but not required,” but not until April 4.

Had the override been successful Senate Bill 173 also would have prohibited children not wearing masks from being treated differently than children wearing one and would have limited liability for public school units when allowing parental opt-out of mask requirements, unless the act or omission amounts to gross negligence, willful conduct, or intentional wrongdoing.

Additionally, the bill would have repealed required school board monthly votes on mask policies for the remainder of the current school year.

About A.P. Dillon 648 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_