NC legislature opens facing COVID-19 pandemic challenges 

NC legislature opens facing COVID-19 pandemic challenges 

Legislative members stand to be recognized in the NC House on the opening day of the 2021 session. ( Screenshot: NC General Assembly livestream)

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore were re-elected to the top positions in their chambers on the first day of the new legislative session, formally beginning another two years of divided government, with Republicans in control of the legislative branch and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper as the state’s chief executive.  

The legislature has been in Republican hands for a decade. They hold the majority as the state tries to maneuver through the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives and shut down businesses, and even as the best paths to normalcy are in dispute. 

Moore, of Kings Mountain, was elected to a fourth term. Berger, of Eden in Rockingham County, was first elected Senate leader in 2011.  

Legislative leaders seemed determined to bring none of the strife that is tearing at Washington, D.C., to Raleigh.  

Berger’s remarks were heavily freighted with allusions to the recent mob violence in Washington, and the refusal of President Donald Trump to concede the presidential election to President-elect Joe Biden, as well as the deep political divisions in the country. 

It has been a year punctuated by violence, Berger said, culminating in what he called “the most symbolic and troubling episode of all — a mob storming the seat of our national government.”

The Constitution provides ways to advance change through the three branches of government, Berger said.

“Mob violence is not one of them,” he said. Those involved in mob violence has to be punished, he said, and it appears authorities are pursuing those responsible.

Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger (Screenshot: UNC-TV livestream)

The people of the state have chosen divided government in electing a Republican majority while giving Cooper a second term, Berger said, adding that both sides can still respectfully pursue their policy goals. Berger said he has met with Cooper several times since the election and has been assured that he agrees. 

Legislators must come to disagreements with the assumption of good faith on all sides, Berger said.

“That way we can bicker and barter back and forth and at day’s end still see one another as a colleague, not a foe,” he said.

House Republicans enjoy a stronger position than they had last session, having picked up four seats in the November election. Republicans now hold a 69-51 majority in the House.  

Democrats picked up one seat in the GOP-led Senate. Republicans have a 28-22 advantage in the chamber. 

Neither chamber has enough Republican votes to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes when all members are present.  

The chamber floors are usually crowded with members family members on opening day. This year, because of the need for social distancing in the pandemic, House members did not stand with their families as they took their oath of office, and there were few family members allowed on the House floor. Most House members wore masks, but not all. Everyone in the Senate wore masks. 

House Speaker Tim Moore (Screenshot: NC General Assembly)

Moore hit on some traditional GOP themes while emphasizing unity. He mentioned the COVID-19 relief legislation that passed unanimously last year, as an example of bipartisan efforts benefiting the state. 

“Right now our nation and our state face a lot of uncertainty and a lot of challenges,” Moore said, mentioning the health and economic crises.  “We’ve always been that shining city on a hill because of the people of this state and of this nation.” 

Moore and former GOP Rep. David Lewis generally had good relationships with House Democratic leaders. Those good feelings dissolved into bitter recriminations in 2019 when House Republicans surprised Democrats with an early-morning vote overriding Gov. Cooper’s budget veto.  

The state resorted to passing “mini-budgets” rather than a full spending plan because of a standoff between Cooper and legislative Republicans over Medicaid expansion.  

Rep. Robert Reives II, the House minority leader from Chatham County, referenced “events of the last couple of weeks” serving as notice for the need to bridge partisan divides.  

Rep. Robert Reives II, the House minority leader (Screenshot: NC General Assembly)

“The people want our government to act, want our government to be better, want our government to be there for them,” Reives said. “We have an opportunity together to figure out the path forward.”  

The spirit of bipartisanship being preached in Wednesday’s organizational session saw a soft test when Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat,  said he intended to ask that the Senate rules be amended to make facemasks mandatory in the chamber. Blue said he looked around this first session and saw everyone on the floor and in the public gallery wearing them.

“I don’t want to impose rules or try to impose rules if in fact it’s the intention of the Rules chairman, President Pro Tem, that we cajole, we twist arms, we do whatever is necessary to make sure that members respect other members and wear masks while they are in the chamber,” Blue said.

Blue referenced recent COVID infections among members of Congress who had to shelter in place during the mob violence with colleagues who refused to wear masks.

It would be easily achievable to get two-thirds of the body to amend the rules if necessary, Blue said. But that won’t be necessary if there is agreement between both parties to have all members and staff wear masks “until we can get two shots in our arms.”

Berger said he is reluctant to make it a mandate, but it is his intention to be sure everyone wears masks while in the chamber.

“I believe you will find that most members will see fit to continue to wear masks,” said Berger, who himself wore a mask.