RALEIGH, Wake County — The North Carolina General Assembly began its annual session Tuesday by turning immediately to legislation to distribute COVID-19 federal relief funds, operating under unprecedented rules with social distancing in mind.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger gaveled in their floor sessions with about 20% the 170 legislators present, a contrast to full chambers on a traditional session’s first day. Absent lawmakers either were in their offices or working from home for now to avoid high-risk activities. A few on the floor wore face masks.
For now, committees in both chambers will occur online, and House floor votes will be staggered to prevent crowded conditions. The Legislative Building is closed to the public, with only journalists and sergeants-at-arms in the galleries.
“It’s going to be different,” Moore told reporters. “Just as folks in their personal lives, in their families and their businesses, so to in government. We’ve had to make adjustments as well.”
Even with in-person legislators scarce, hundreds of demonstrators angry with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s extended statewide stay-at-home order greeted them while rallying for the third Tuesday in a row. This time they expressed their grievances in front of the Legislative Building, apparently to seek support from lawmakers. They questioned the logic of Cooper’s order for devastating most businesses, while allowing large retailers and other “essential” activities to continue.
“I’ve worked since I was 15 years old,” said Beth Nix, 53, of Denver, North Carolina, who was laid off last month on the second day of new job at a boutique store for pets because of the restrictions. “This is the first time in my life that I’ve not been able to work.”
Demonstrators lingered for a few hours, many of whom ended up in front of the Executive Mansion. Ashley Smith, a ReopenNC co-founder, was one of three people that police arrested after Smith stepped on the sidewalk in front of the Mansion when told not to by police, according to Smith’s husband, Adam. State Capitol Police referred questions to a Department of Public Safety spokesman, who said the department arrested four people on Tuesday but didn’t immediately have additional details.
Earlier Tuesday, Smith called on Cooper to eliminate his order by Friday. Otherwise, she dared the crowd to begin defying the order by opening up their businesses and going to church, saying they’re the victims of complying with it.
“We’ve played by all the rules, and now we’ve been cast aside,” Smith said. ”Today, I say no more ... I’m essential. You’re essential. We’re all essential.”
Republicans at the legislature are empathetic to the protesters and have urged Cooper to accelerate or alter his three-phased approach to reopening, perhaps by making decision-making regional. But there’s little appetite to challenge his orders with counter-legislation.
Cooper said Tuesday he understands that people are out of work and “a lot of families are hanging by a thread,” so that’s why he’s pressing for unemployment benefits and loans for small businesses. But public health is first and foremost, he said.
“I’m very eager to move into our phases of reopening,” Cooper said at a virus outbreak briefing. “But we’re going to rely on the science. We’re going to rely on the data and we’re going to rely on the facts in order to make decisions about moving forward.”
The two chambers, with input from Cooper, are aiming to push through by week’s end legislation to spend federal funds to expand coronavirus testing, purchase additional personal protective equipment and provide relief to local and state government agencies drained of projected revenues. Proposed legislation also would delay car inspection and driver’s license renewals and cancel interest on pending tax bills once due April 15.
House members began advancing Tuesday afternoon through committees legislation that include many elements of the $1.4 billion package sought by Cooper.
While Cooper, Berger and Moore have talked bipartisanship and consensus in passing legislation quickly, some details will still need to be hammered out. House proposals, for example, would spend about $1.7 billion, according to Moore.
Senate leaders late Tuesday rolled out a broadly bipartisan bill that Berger’s office said spends or puts in reserve $2.4 billion. As for differences in spending levels, Berger said: “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to bridge whatever gaps might exist.”
In differences from the House legislation, the Senate bill would raise the maximum weekly state unemployment benefit to $400 when new federal benefits expire. But it leaves out a House provision that would have temporarily expanded Medicaid coverage to more people for COVID-19 treatment. Berger said federal money already going directly to medical providers will treat the uninsured.