RALEIGH — As the new year rolled in, the North Carolina General Assembly was faced with the ongoing masking of K-12 school children as well as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s continuing statewide state of emergency order.
Mounting pressure from the public and parents to end quarantine and masking policies took center stage in February when House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) issued a letter to Cooper asking for an end to those policies.
“Throughout the pandemic, it has been our young children who have paid the heaviest price for the Governor’s endless state of emergency and ongoing mandates and restrictions,” Moore said in a statement. “It is time to end the policies that have disrupted classrooms and hindered student achievement. The science does not support these onerous restrictions that continue to harm our children.”
The Senate acted, creating the “Free the Smiles Act” in an effort to unmask the state’s K-12 students. The governor would later veto the bill, stating that “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.”
An override of Cooper’s veto in the Senate failed. Two Cumberland County Democrats who originally voted to pass the bill flip-flopped and voted to uphold Cooper’s veto.
During a COVID-19 press briefing held prior to his veto, Cooper had put the onus on schools and local governments to end mask mandates while calling the bill allowing parents to choose whether or not their child is masked “frantic,” and “politically motivated.”
With regard to the governor’s ongoing statewide state of emergency order, Cooper passed the buck on ending it in March, stating, “We presented to the General Assembly laws that they can pass so that they can end it. So, not a big deal.” Cooper’s emergency order would persist for five more months, reaching the 888 day mark in August.
Legislators also tackled a number of education-related issues such as the growing scrutiny of controversial and ideological topics like Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools.
In late May, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) along with other legislators unveiled House Bill 755, titled “The Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The measure sought to “enumerate the rights of parents to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare and mental health of their children.” The bill also sought to expand transparency in curriculum and barred the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in Kindergarten through Third-grade.
Cooper signaled he would veto the bill and LGBT activists attempted to label the bill as the next “Don’t say gay” bill, referring to similar legislation signed by Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Likely seeing no way to override Cooper’s likely veto, after passing both chambers The Parents’ Bill of Rights ended up being referred to the House Rules Committee and never re-emerged. The core topic of the bill may not be dead with Berger indicating there is interest in the Senate for introducing a similar bill next year.
At the end of July lawmakers announced a new subcommittee had been formed to investigate the mishandling of the state’s hurricane recovery and response to Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
The subcommittee has met twice so far in 2022, both times grilling Cooper’s head of the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency Laura Hogshead over the abysmal lack of progress.
During the first hurricane subcommittee meeting held in September, it was learned Hogshead’s office had only completed 789 out of 4,100 projects with time running out on federal disaster funds. Additionally, lawmakers heard testimony from citizens who had been living out of temporary accommodations for years.
The subcommittee met again on Dec. 14 and focused on the continued slow progress and accountability for work left undone. During questioning, Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson) harshly criticized Hogshead’s lack of progress, telling her she had “failed as a director” and “You should resign from your position.”
One of the major milestones of the 2022 session included the enactment of the 2022 ABC Omnibus bill repealing the current definition of “private bar” and creating a new one that eliminated a membership requirement.
Another major win was the passage of a $27.9 billion state budget. The measure received heavy bipartisan support in both chambers and Cooper signed the budget in July. He had vetoed all previous budgets presented to him during his two-term tenure.
Along with signing the budget, the governor also racked up four new vetoes and brought his total veto count to a record-breaking 75.
Vetoes may not be a weapon in Cooper’s arsenal heading into 2023 as the midterm elections turned out favorably for Republicans in both chambers of the legislature. The Senate captured a supermajority and the House came within one seat of that goal.
In a post-election press release, Moore said he wasn’t worried the House fell one seat short.
“We have a handful of Democrats who work with us,” Moore said. “We have some new members coming in, and I feel completely confident that should we need to override vetoes, we’ll be able to do our part in the House as well.”
By the end of 2022, lawmakers had enacted 275 pieces of legislation on a wide range of topics, with a large number of bills addressing education and pandemic-related items, as well as addressing health, behavioral and opioid addiction issues.
Despite the large number of bills passed, some of the high-profile work was left unfinished, including sports wagering bills, medical cannabis legalization, and Medicaid expansion.
Medicaid expansion had been a “non-starter” for both Berger and Moore in the past, but over the past year both spoke positively about the subject and both chambers introduced their own version of a Medicaid expansion bill but neither made it out of their respective committees.
In a post-election press conference, Moore said it would wait until 2023 and Berger didn’t disagree that “waiting until next year is the right thing to do.”
Moore, who was elected speaker for a fifth consecutive term, also said he’d like to see more action on behavioral health issues and expects to see legislation with an eye toward more transparency in K-12 education matters.