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.