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Legislative Session Starts With Protesters As Backdrop

State lawmakers began session Tuesday as REOpenNC protesters gathered on Jones Street in downtown Raleigh.
Jeff Tiberii

The state House and Senate are split over how much COVID-19 relief to provide in the immediacy. The discord may be typical, but it's hardly business at usual on West Jones Street in Raleigh.

The General Assembly will need to reach agreement on the amount to earmark for small business loans and whether to provide COVID-19 medical coverage for those in the healthcare gap.

State lawmakers have about $3.5 billion remaining from the federal CARES Act. Presently the House wants to deploy $1.7 billion, or, about $500 million more than the Senate. The federal government has indicated the money should be allocated by the end of the calendar year. Senators say their plan provides a more prudent approach, and allows for more flexibility this summer.

The House wants to appropriate more money for small businesses loans. It also plans to provide funds for COVID-19 testing and treatment for people in the healthcare coverage gap – something the Senate has not agreed to.

In accordance with social distancing, House lawmakers will have 40 minutes vote – far more than the usual 15 seconds. And some members will vote remotely. Democratic House leader Darren Jackson wore a homemade mask while talking to reporters.

"I think there will be a handful of members who will insist upon being in the chambers," he said. "I think there will be another handful who will desire to be on the building property, in case somebody tries some shenanigans."

Jackson said he’s optimistic there will not be any such shenanigans this week. Lawmakers hope to sort out their differences on relief spending in the next couple of days. Several lawmakers said they are optimistic that the $500 million spending gap between the chambers can be worked out this week.

As members of the General Assembly worked, a crowd of around 200 people gathered outside the state legislature to protest Governor Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

It was the third consecutive Tuesday that supporters of the REOpenNC movement assembled in Raleigh. They say the governor's order goes too far and infringes on their constitutional rights to gather and work freely.

A group of about a dozen health care workers stood silently near the larger protest to send a message that people should continue adhering to social distancing measures. Nurse practitioner Amber Brown was among them.

"They're risking their lives, they're risking the lives of anybody that they live with because they're going to take it home," she said.

Four REOpenNC protesters were arrested, including organizer Ashley Smith.

At the daily coronavirus response briefing, Cooper said he understands that people are eager to re-open businesses in North Carolina – and so is he. He said he's involving businesses in the decisions to gradually lift restrictions.

"I hope that we move through these as quickly as possible, but we're going to rely on the science, we're going to rely on the data, we're going to rely on the facts," he said.

Cooper said the state is tracking progress on the benchmarks he's laid out for re-opening, including the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. He invited people to view the state's data dashboard online.

In the meantime, he said, the state and federal governments are working on legislation to bring financial relief to businesses and individuals.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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