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North Carolina Session To Begin With COVID-19 Aid Consensus

A view of the North Carolina legislature building through the Bicentennial Plaza in downtown Raleigh.
Jason deBruyn

A North Carolina legislative session anticipated months ago to repeat the acrimony from last year's budget impasse between Republicans and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper begins Tuesday with expectations of consensus to address  COVID-19.

The General Assembly will convene its annual session and meet for only a few days, with unprecedented rules to ensure social distancing that include closing the legislative complex to the public. Legislators, staff and journalists allowed to enter got their temperatures checked by police starting Monday.

"Think about how just all of your lives have been turned upside down ... nothing's the same as it was, nothing," Speaker Tim Moore said in an interview, adding: "We're going to get something done."

By week's end, GOP legislative leaders anticipate passing a pair of bills that in part disburses well over $1 billion in federal relief funds. Lawmakers from both parties and Cooper say they're largely in agreement on a funding package. Its parameters were disclosed by Cooper last week and have been reviewed by legislators.

"I think we all want to go in the same direction, and we're hoping that this provides a good compromise," Cooper told reporters Friday. Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, both Republicans, said last week in separate interviews with The Associated Press that they anticipated legislation will receive overwhelming bipartisan support.

This agreement contrasts with a 2019 session marked by a state budget standoff. Cooper vetoed the GOP's two-year spending plan, Republicans lacked the votes to complete an override and both sides couldn't work out differences on teacher pay, corporate tax cuts and Medicaid expansion. But health and economic calamities from the new coronavirus have set aside, for now, the political battles from the past three years. It's similar to when North Carolina leaders responded  to Hurricane Florence in 2018.

Cooper's $1.4 billion proposal would help struggling small businesses, purchase more personal protective gear and expand COVID-19 testing and tracing. Money also would go to help K-12 public schools shuttered for the rest of the year with remote instruction, and to local governments and the Department of Transportation, both of which have seen revenues fall dramatically.

Lawmakers also want to pass dozens of policy changes, most of them temporary, for state government and the public. Annual vehicle inspection deadlines would be delayed and accrued interest on income tax payments originally due April 15 would be cancelled. Health reasons would be added to the exceptions in which masks can be worn in public. Mask prohibitions hearken back to thwarting Ku Klux Klan activity.

After this week, lawmakers are expected to return in May or June — depending on the virus outbreak and reopenings — to conduct business usually performed during sessions in even-numbered years. That would usually include adjusting the second year of the approved two-year budget, but the 2019 stalemate and potential loss of $2.5 billion in tax revenues due to the economic downturn will make that work tricky.

Democratic Rep. Graig Meyer of Orange County said he's concerned distrust germinating from the animosity of the past few years will resurface later in the spring, when shortfalls could threaten schools and public health.

This week, "we're likely to see a fairly harmonious time, and when (we return) I don't think that it will be quite as harmonious," Meyer said.

With a statewide stay-at-home order extended into early May, General Assembly rules experts and Legislative Buiding staff have been busily creating a controlled environment for this week. The North Carolina Constitution prevents public business unless a majority of members in each chamber are present. That's a concern since older legislators and others at higher risk for catching the virus could stay at home.

"We are in unchartered territory, and what we are trying to do is trying to chart the course that is consistent with what the constitution requires," Berger said.

Committee meetings will occur online. While the Senate's 50 members can sit in their chamber at least 6 feet apart, Moore said proposed operating rules for the 120-member House would give representatives 40 minutes to cast their floor votes to avoid crowds. Absent members also could vote by proxy through their majority or minority leader, the speaker said.

The House also will livestream its own floor sessions for the first time. Moore announced last year plans to offer the streaming starting this year.

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