Weekly Legislative Update

North Carolina

By Betsy Bailey & Victor Barbour
January 20, 2021

Session Starts

The North Carolina General Assembly started its 2021 session last Wednesday, and unlike in the session last summer, nearly everyone in the building wore masks. And unlike in the U.S. Capitol, in the state capital of Raleigh lawmakers began their work quietly and with ceremony. No crowds gathered outside. Opening day is mostly ceremonial, with families often on the House and Senate floors. Instead, families were limited to the galleries above, and spaced out to follow the posted signs around the building about maintaining social distance. Nearly all the lawmakers in the House and Senate wore masks, which follows Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide mandate. The House and Senate sergeants-at-arms were also wearing masks, as were the General Assembly Police officers.

In his opening speech, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, condemned last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol. He called it “the most symbolic and troubling episode of all” in a year of unrest, “a mob storming the seat of our national government.” And Berger mentioned the smooth transfer of power when he and the GOP took the leadership role in 2011 from Democratic Sen. Marc Basnight, who recently died. “The fact that he and I had differences on policy did not prevent him from honorably and graciously surrendering power when the people rendered their election verdict,” Berger said.

Across the hall in the House chamber, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, was reelected as speaker. In a speech, Moore called it a day to “mark a new beginning for North Carolina.”

“Our nation faces a lot of uncertainty and a lot of challenges,” Moore said, and that folks are suffering in the health care crisis and economic crisis. “I know that North Carolina is ready to lead the way forward,” Moore said, from COVID-19 and “strife.” Moore said he wants to continue passing COVID-19 relief unanimously like lawmakers did in 2020. “So many kids right now are not in school. What do we do to make sure children are not left behind this year,” he said. Moore talked about the state’s strong economy even amid COVID-19, which Cooper also touted in a recent interview.

Leaders in the House talked about being united, agreeing to disagree and even a “kinder, gentler” General Assembly. Leadership roles and committee assignments in the House also included Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, as speaker pro tempore. Stevens said that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and she hopes lawmakers can “agree to disagree” on some issues. She said she wants to continue to see “a kinder, gentler, General Assembly.” Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, is the new leader of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Legislative Session Priorities

The legislature has adjourned until Jan. 27, when they’ll come back to take up new legislation and, later this spring, tackle the state budget. Among the priorities are education, economic development, broadband internet and more. Senate leader Phil Berger expects several mostly non-controversial issues will be on the agenda in the first few weeks.

State lawmakers have prioritized COVID-19 as the major issue needing to be addressed during the legislative session. “I think almost everything else that we do will play off of what that situation is in terms of the virus,” said Senate leader Phil Berger. Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, spoke with The News & Observer last week about their session plans regarding COVID-19. The first COVID-19 and health care discussions for the session began last week in a joint legislative committee meeting.

Berger and Moore said last week that neither of them are happy that North Carolina ranked as one of the worst states for getting vaccines out to residents, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on vaccines administered. As of last week, North Carolina ranked in the bottom 10 states on the CDC’s population-adjusted ranking. Lawmakers and the Democratic governor may also return to their dispute over who controls the state’s response to the pandemic. Berger and Moore said Gov. Roy Cooper has been given too much power when it comes to making emergency orders for the state. But Moore and Berger said before they can tackle anything else they need to look at the COVID-19 relief package recently handed down from the federal government.

He added that lawmakers aren’t yet clear on what the latest legislation from federal lawmakers does for the state. He said lawmakers are working to get a better idea of what the state needs to do to either distribute funds or implement new programs.

Cooper said in an interview with The News & Observer that he’s been speaking with members of both parties about how they can work together this session and said they have a common interest in COVID-19 issues. “We’ve all agreed that we need to go ahead and appropriate this federal money from this last package that has come down,” Cooper said. “One of the things we hashed out is that we didn’t want to wait until the general fund budget, we wanted to go ahead and get this money out.” Cooper added that this funding has less flexibility, which means fewer decisions for state leaders on where to route the money. He added that the federal dollars are earmarked for helping educators, small businesses and people needing assistance paying rent and utilities.

Berger said his two biggest concerns is making sure there are enough vaccines in North Carolina and that those are getting into residents’ arms. He added that North Carolina officials know that leaving mass recovery efforts to local entities doesn’t work. He said that has become clear during hurricane recovery efforts and is proving true in the vaccine rollout as well.

In a recent legislative committee meeting, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, asked Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen about the vaccine rollout. Cohen acknowledged that some of the local providers had a slow start but said there has been a 113% increase in administering vaccines in the past week. “I know we all feel a sense of urgency to get out this vaccine quickly, I can report that we are getting much faster,” she said.

Berger and Moore agreed that one thing people won’t see this session is lawmakers jumping to the front of the line to get vaccinated. When it comes to their colleagues, they said that lawmakers should receive vaccines in the same order as others do based on their ages, underlying illnesses and careers.

Rep. Dean Arp Appointed Senior Appropriations Chair

Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, has been promoted to serve as one of the House’s senior budget writers this year, and two more legislators have been named to lead the House Finance Committee. House Speaker Tim Moore announced committee chair appointments on Wednesday as the legislature convened, and he added several moderate Democrats to co-chair several of the House’s less prominent committees.

Arp will be joining Reps. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, as the senior Appropriations Committee co-chairs. He’s replacing Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, who died last year. Reps. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, and John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, will join Mitchell Setzer and Julia Howard as co-chairs of the Finance Committee. Rep.

Representative Brenden Jones will replace Rep. John Torbett as Chair of the appropriations and policy committees for transportation.  Rep. Torbett has been appointed as Chair of the Education Appropriations Committee. 

Vaccine Distribution Updates

North Carolina public health officials on Thursday unveiled an updated coronavirus vaccine distribution plan that prioritizes adults 65 years or older, while removing college students as a priority over the general public. The new, more simplified guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services comes in response to growing concerns that its previous plan was too complicated, slowed down vaccine distribution and administration and didn’t give enough consideration to older adults who are far more likely to die from the virus than college students and other groups.

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen on Twitter posted a link to the updated distribution plan, which shows elderly residents who are at least 65 years old now able to get vaccinated. Previously, residents had to be at least 75 years old to be prioritized in the current group. The adjustment aligns with new guidance put forward by President Donald Trump’s administration. “We are trying for simplicity and to really focus on the additional guidance we got from the federal government just a couple of days ago,” Cohen said in a Thursday news conference. “We are prioritizing those who are at highest risk of severe illness, those who are at highest risk from an exposure perspective and really try to get some simplicity there.” Asked if college students are no longer prioritized over the general public, she replied, “Yes, that’s right. We’ve simplified.”

Once elderly residents have gotten vaccinated, frontline essential workers will be prioritized in the third phase of distribution. The fourth phase includes anyone 16-64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, all prison inmates or others living in close group living settings who are not already vaccinated and essential workers who are not yet vaccinated.  Construction workers are included in this category. 

New Aircraft Facility Approved for Buncombe County

Aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney got the go-ahead Jan. 13 to build a 1.2 million square foot plant on a 100-acre site in southern Buncombe County. The Buncombe County Board of Adjustment conducted a quasi-judicial hearing on the company’s request for a Conditional Use Permit for the site. The board, which has the final say on such projects in Buncombe, voted unanimously in favor. Most of the site was already zoned “employment,” an appropriate designation for the plant, a $650 million investment that will employ 800 people, but two smaller parcels were zoned commercial and R-3 residential. The company requested and received permission for a “Planned Unite Development” to include the manufacturing and shipping facility, which will also include administrative offices. An electrical substation will also be constructed on site. Biltmore Farms, the local development company, owns the site now but will donate the 100-acre parcel to Pratt and Whitley.

South Carolina

By Leslie B. Clark
January 20, 2021

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DHEC Asks Businesses to Fill Out Vaccine Survey for 1b Rollout

SC Department of Health and Environment Control (DHEC) released information on the Phase 1b vaccination plan and asked South Carolina businesses to fill out a survey to determine how many frontline essential workers are eligible for the vaccine within the Phase 1b category.

Phase 1b will include workers in health care settings not vaccinated in 1a, persons living and working in shared or overcrowded environments with an increased risk of COVID-19 infection, and frontline essential workers.

DHEC notes that their definition of frontline essential worker is different than the Homeland Security definition.

Per DHEC, frontline essential workers are defined as those in business sectors essential to the functioning of society and who are at substantially higher risk of exposure to COVID-19; that is, their occupational risk is above the risk of the general population. DHEC provides specific criteria for high exposure risk here:

  • Those who have frequent or sustained contact with coworkers, including under close working conditions indoors or in poorly ventilated spaces in various types of industrial, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, and other critical infrastructure workplaces.
  • Those who have frequent indoor or poorly ventilated contact with the general public, including workers in retail stores, grocery stores or supermarkets, pharmacies, transit and transportation operations, law enforcement and emergency response operations, restaurants, and bars.

Phase 1c will include people age 65 and older, ages 16-64 with chronic conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19, and essential workers not vaccinated in 1b.

DHEC is asking businesses to fill out this survey to help them allocate their limited vaccine supply.

The survey also allows businesses to indicate whether they would like to be a vaccine provider.

House and Senate Kick-off 2021 Session

Last week, the SC Senate and SC House kicked off the 124th legislative session. The Senate spent their time in session, electing and swearing in Sen. Harvey Peeler as President of the Senate along with the Senate Clerk, Chaplin, and Sergeant of Arms all of whom were elected by Acclamation. Senators then heard from the newest members of the Senate, Sens. Brian Adams, Billy Garrett, Penry Gustafson, Michael Johnson, Josh Kimbrell, and Vernon Stephens. Senators then reviewed, debated, and approved changes to the Senate Rules, which they only change every four years. Senators completed their organization by choosing their desk inside the Chamber and selecting the committees they wanted to serve on.

Across the hall, the SC House swore in Reps. Bruce Bryant, Travis Moore, Max Hide, Ryan McCabe, Jeff Bradley, West Cox, Nathan Ballentine, Kirkman Finlay, John McGarry, William Cogswell, Wendell Gilliard, and Spencer Wetmore who were unable to attend the House Organizational Session in December. All in all, most of the week was spent organizing in the Senate and budget hearings and the adoption of rule changes in the House. Before leaving for the week, both Chambers voted to meet virtually this week due to security concerns surrounding the Presidential inauguration. The House plans to return on Tuesday, 1/26 and the Senate will return tomorrow, 1/21.

McMaster Issues State of the State

Gov. Henry McMaster presented his state of the state to members of the legislature last week. McMaster touted his successes and outlined his priorities for the new year and legislative session. McMaster praised the actions of SC during the pandemic, "We took a road less traveled – a better road," he told the assembled lawmakers. "We slowed down, but safely remained open. We never closed. Our reasonable steps of limited, measured and temporary actions allowed us to combat the virus without crippling our economy."

In one of McMaster’s longest state of the state speeches, the Governor urged the General Assembly to support the several pro-business initiatives in his proposed budget. Including, but not limited to, an additional $123 million in state funds for small business grants, adopting some degree of COVID-19 liability protections, and cutting our state’s personal income taxes through a phased-in, five-year, 15% across-the-board tax reduction for all personal income brackets, keeping SC competitive with our neighboring states. The Governor also pushed the legislature to support $8 million in CARES Act funds to provide job training programs for 3,100 adults who have lost their jobs due to the virus, an additional $60 million for high-demand jobs skills training, and an additional $37 million for workforce scholarships and grants – so that more South Carolinians can receive skills-based certificates and accreditation at our state’s technical colleges. Click here to read Governor’s full remarks.

COVID Liability Bill Filed

Last week, Rep. Tommy Pope along with 44 other House members filed a Joint Resolution that would provide liability protections for a limited time for health care providers and businesses that follow public health guidance in response to the coronavirus public health emergency. Cited as the South Carolina COIVD-19 Liability Safe Harbor Act, H.3698, was sent to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. The bill defines terms such as “Covered Entity,” “Coronavirus Claim,” and “Public Health Guidance” and will not allow for claims that are knowingly reckless, willful, or prove to be intentional misconduct. If approved and signed into law, it will apply to civil and administrative causes of action that arise between March 13, 2020 and December 31, 2020, or 180 days after the final state of emergency is lifted in SC, whichever is later.

Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act

Calling all members who perform work on abandoned buildings in SC! Sen. Scott Talley, along with Sens. Ross Turner, Rex Rice and Brian Adams, have filed an Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act, S. 271. Current law allowed an incentive for the rehabilitation, renovation, and redevelopment of abandoned buildings located in South Carolina. These tax credits expire December 31, 2021 and we are interested in seeing S. 271 pass because it extends the tax credits to December 31, 2025. If you have an interest in this legislative extension and want to ensure its passage, please reach out to Leslie Clark at LClark@carolinasagc.org to learn more about how you can help.