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Reaching compromises, foremost state budget, helped 2021 legislative session stand out
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Reaching compromises, foremost state budget, helped 2021 legislative session stand out

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The 2021 legislative session began with pledges from Democratic and Republicans leaders to find areas of bipartisan cooperation following two years of budget and culture-war showdowns often ending in a Gov. Roy Cooper veto.

There were some significant successes, foremost Cooper’s signing of the 2021-23 state budget on Nov. 18.

It represented the fruits from the first earnest negotiations over a Republican-sponsored budget bill involving Cooper and Democratic leadership since Cooper took office in January 2017.

Although Cooper was not able to get top-priority Medicaid expansion in Senate Bill 105, he said “funding for high speed internet, our universities and community colleges, clean air and drinking water, and desperately needed pay increases for teachers and state employees are all critical for our state to emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.”

“I will continue to fight for progress where this budget falls short, but believe that, on balance, it is an important step in the right direction.”

Cooper signed a high school athletics reform bill pushed by Senate Republicans, as well as a bill sponsored by Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, that guaranteed visitor access to long-term care facilities during statewide emergencies.

Yet, the cooperation had its expected limits.

Cooper vetoed 16 Republican-sponsored bills, including those that would have affected: education restrictions; ending federal unemployment benefits early; female patient-doctor conversations; relaxing pistol permit regulations; settlement reached by the state attorney general; and voting access.

Cooper agreed to allow legislation in SB105 that limits the governor’s executive authority during a future statewide emergency. The governor, beginning in 2023, requires approval first from the 10-member Council of State to extend an executive order, then later the legislature’s permission.

Cooper also agreed to Republican-backed limitations of certain settlements negotiated by the state’s attorney general.

Both of those non-budgetary items had been thought by left- and right-leaning analysts to be controversial enough to potentially collapse budget negotiations.

Redistricting maps

Republican legislative leadership passed along party lines redistricting map bills for U.S. House and state legislative districts beginning with the 2022 general election.

Several analysts have said those redistricting maps could have produced a 10-4 Republican U.S. House advantage in a decidedly purple state, as well as increased the likelihood of Republican regaining super-majorities in both legislative chambers.

In one example, the current district of U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, D-6th, contains all of Guilford County and most of Forsyth County,

The redistricting bill removes Forsyth from Manning’s district, which would then stretch to the northwest to Watauga County and double-bunk her with Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx in what would be a heavily leaning Republican 11th District.

Redistricting bills are not subject to a governor’s veto, but they immediately faced several lawsuits that questioned the constitutionality of the legislation.

On Dec. 8, redistricting was put on hold by the N.C. Supreme Court, which is 4-3 Democratic, until it could address the lawsuits.

The court implemented a 10-week delay in the primaries until May 17.

Cooper veto track record

Cooper has vetoed a record 69 bills during his first five years as governor, of which 23 were overridden in the 2017-18 sessions when Republicans held super-majorities in both chambers.

For the 2021 session, a successful veto override requires the votes of at least two Democratic senators and at least three Democratic House members.

While the 2021 session technically is not adjourned, there has been only one override attempt by Republican leadership on Cooper’s 16 vetoes. It was Senate Bill 37, which would have required middle and high school students to re-enter the classroom before vaccines were approved for them.

Cooper said the bill would have violated federal and state health COVID-19 guidelines. The override vote failed 29-20 on March 1.

Altogether, Cooper has had 41 consecutive vetoes not overridden. Democrats defeated three veto override votes in 2019 and seven in 2020.

Budget compromise

The $25.9 billion 2021-22 budget included 5% pay raises for most public school teachers and staff, along with raises for other state employees — higher than some Republican legislators had proposed.

It featured the gradual elimination of the state’s corporate tax rate in 2028, a major victory on a quest Republicans have been pursuing since the early 2000s.

The current rate of 2.5% is the lowest among the 44 states that have a corporate tax rate. The budget bill also features another slight reduction in the individual income tax from 5.25% to 4.99%.

It includes $1 billion toward a vitally needed broadband expansion in rural parts of the state, along with increasing the child tax deduction by $500 per child.

“Now that Gov. Cooper has signed SB 105 into law, we have finally given our state a budget they can truly be proud of and one that meets the most critical needs of North Carolinians,” House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said Nov. 18.

Triad budget benefits

The state budget earmarks money for performance venues at the two UNC System universities in Winston-Salem.

The first phase of the Stevens Center renovation project would receive a $25 million pledge. UNC School of the Arts owns the 77,500-square-foot Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem.

The budget includes $4.8 million toward the Stevens Center’s roof, repair of water intrusion and other building projects for a total funding commitment to the facility of $29.8 million.

The budget also provides $5.7 million in fiscal 2021-22 and $14.2 million in fiscal 2022-23 toward the capital project for Williams Auditorium at Winston-Salem State University. The overall cost of that project is listed at $57 million.

Meanwhile, backers of North Wilkesboro’s Save the Speedway campaign gained $18 million in federal pandemic money from the budget toward water, sewer and related infrastructure renovations for a North Wilkesboro Speedway that has sat mostly idle since September 1996. The last race was in 2011 during a two-year mini-revival.

The funds could help pay for repaving of the track, pedestrian walkway enhancements, bathroom fixtures and maintenance, grandstand repair and erosion control.

Wilkes County commissioners are required to provide a 25% match, or $4.5 million.

NCHSAA reform

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Another unexpected legislative compromise came Nov. 23 when Cooper signed into law a Republican-sponsored controversial bill that changes how high- and middle-school sports are managed in North Carolina.

A conference committee spent about seven weeks to reach a concurrence on House Bill 91, including what role the N.C. High School Athletic Association or another nonprofit organization would have.

The bill allows the State Board of Education to enter into a potential four-year vendor contract with the NCHSAA, or another nonprofit organization.

After months of often-heated exchanges between Republican bill sponsors and NCHSAA executives, the HB91 compromise was spurred by discussions involving bill sponsors, Democratic legislators and officials from the NCHSAA, the Board of Education and representatives from Cooper’s office.

Reforms affect rules governing high school sports involving student participation rules, student health and safety rules, penalties, appeals, administrative, gameplay, fees, organization rules and reporting rules.

The reforms are expected to start with the 2022-23 school year. Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, and a co-primary bill sponsor, told legislators it is likely the Board of Education “will move forward with a memorandum of understanding in March.”

No patient left alone

A COVID-19 related bill with unexpected bipartisan cooperation came in October when Cooper signed into law Senate Bill 191, which addresses patient visitations during a statewide emergency.

It affects hospitals, nursing homes, hospice care, residential treatment facilities and other long-term care facilities.

“Families will not be separated completely from loved ones again,” Krawiec said.

Family members are defined as a spouse, child, sibling, parent, grandparent, grandchild, spouse of an immediate family member, stepparent, stepchildren, stepsiblings and adoptive relationships.

Compassionate care visits include: end-of-life situations; patient struggling with a change in living environment and lack of personal family support; patient grieving the recent loss of a family member or friend; patient requiring additional attention because of challenges with eating or drinking; and patient becoming unstable emotionally in part by being in the facility.

Visitors can be required to be screened for infectious diseases. If a visitor tests positive for an infectious disease or fails the screening, they can be denied entry. Visitors can be required to wear personal protective equipment.

Forsyth legislators’ lead roles

Local legislators played key bill sponsor roles in several other high-profile bills.

In August, Cooper signed into law legislation sponsored by Krawiec that requires parental consent for 12- to 17-year-olds to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The law affects COVID-19 vaccine and any other vaccines available only under an emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

The main element of HB96 gives pharmacists state permission to administer COVID-19 vaccine and any other vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration, along with nicotine replacement therapy medicine, self-administered oral and transdermal contraceptives, prenatal vitamins, HIV post-exposure prophylaxis, glucagon, testosterone and vitamin B12 injections.

Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, was the main Democratic sponsor on Republican-sponsored bills involving medical marijuana and sports gambling.

Senate Bill 711, which would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, advanced through three Senate committees before stalling in the gateway Rules and Operations committee in August. It is likely to resurface early in the 2022 session.

SB711 is the latest in several attempts over the past 12 years to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The bill’s odds of clearing the Senate are considered promising given that Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and chairman of Rules committee, is one of its three primary sponsors.

Rabon, a cancer survivor, has said SB711 would not serve as a gateway to recreational marijuana use, although opponents that include Krawiec claim that it will.

The bill requires the medical marijuana system be self-sustaining from a revenue perspective following initial money to set up the system.

Also stalling at an advanced stage was Senate 688, a bipartisan sports wagering bill also co-sponsored by Lowe.

The bill would allow North Carolinians to place bets on professional and collegiate sports with a select group of wagering operators.

The Senate approved the bill in a 26-19 vote Aug. 19. It cleared the first of four House committee steps on Nov. 4. At that time, analysts projected the committee process would carry over into the 2022 legislative session.

Lowe and Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, have emphasized SB668 could play a pivotal role for the state’s three highest-level professional teams in terms of additional revenue to compete with rivals in states that have approved the forms of gambling permitted in SB688.

Sports wagering is legal in Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia.

Analysts have projected the legislation would face stiffer opposition from House members, including some in the Triad, who are not in favor of expanding North Carolinians’ access to legalized gambling.

‘Hege’ sheriff’s bill

Cooper signed into law in August the so-called Gerald Hege bill that bars felons, including those who have had their records expunged, from running for sheriff.

Hege is the controversial former Davidson County sheriff. The law goes into effect Oct. 1.

The law also removes the requirement that a candidate for sheriff be a resident of the county for at least a year before the general election.

The bill does not name Hege, the Republican sheriff of Davidson from 1994 until he resigned in 2004. His name was not mentioned during House or Senate debate about the bill, but Davidson was cited in each instance.

Hege is apparently the only sheriff candidate in recent memory whom the bill would affect.

Hege pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of obstruction of justice after facing 15 felony counts.

His convictions, though, were later expunged, meaning they were removed from his record. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2007 and in 2018.

HB312 mandates that any candidate for sheriff disclose all felony convictions, including expunged convictions, when filing to run for office.

A potential candidate who fails to file the felony disclosure would not be allowed to appear on the ballot. Any votes for the candidate would not be counted.

Richard Craver: 6 stories that defined 2021

COVID-19 and politics, whether local, state or national, spilled over from 2020 to saturate much of how 2021 has been defined.

The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump led to an intriguing split vote of North Carolina's two Republican U.S. senators on whether to convict.

The arrival of the one-year anniversary of the pandemic proved to stir an array of emotions as local residents tried to process everything that’s happened by mid-March 2020 ... and continues to date.

The socioeconomic spillover from COVID-19 persuaded two Winston-Salem nondenominational churches to chose transformation over construction for their new worship centers.

Politics seeped into how high school sports are overseen with a Republican-sponsored bill that threatened the existence of the N.C. High School Athletic Association. The spark behind House Bill 91 appears to have been a slow burn of nearly two years between a GOP senator and NCHSAA leaders.

An often overlooked factor in the worker-shortage discussion is that the pandemic has led more North Carolinians to retire early, or to finally follow through on delayed retirement plans dating back potentially to the Great Recession.

Finally, Truist Financial Corp. Kelly King retired as chief executive by reflecting on a career — and life — path that represented his Christian faith, a hard-driven work ethic, a belief in giving back and discovering and acting on a purpose forged during a spiritual awakening.

Those are major reasons why King, who could spend his retirement days anywhere, is coming back to Winston-Salem. There’s some unfinished business to accomplish here.

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

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