RALEIGH -- North Carolina lawmakers finished most of their work for the year early Friday, setting another Medicaid overhaul date, funding a monument to honor African Americans and trying again to reopen businesses shuttered by Gov. Roy Cooper due to COVID-19.
House and Senate members began a marathon meeting Thursday morning, then negotiated and voted on scores of bills into the night before finishing up shortly after 3 a.m. After any veto override attempts or other activity next month, the General Assembly won't return to work until early September, during which Republican leaders agreed to a limited, two-day agenda that includes distributing any additional federal coronavirus relief funds.
Before going home, legislators overwhelmingly approved a Medicaid package that increases next year's funding by over $460 million and directs the program to begin its long-delayed shift from traditional payments to managed care by July 2021. The overhaul was supposed to come online last fall, but got derailed in a showdown between Republican legislators and Cooper.
Early in the session, lawmakers and Cooper agreed to legislation distributing $1.6 billion of the $3.5 billion in federal relief money earmarked for North Carolina. By late Thursday, legislators had voted to increase that total distribution to at least $2.1 billion.
A state agency and university construction bill approved early Friday contained $1.5 million toward the construction of a long-planned "North Carolina Freedom Park" in downtown Raleigh honoring the contributions of African Americans in the state.
The state House and Senate started holding their traditional annual session in late April and found rare consensus among the two parties on a number of fronts. But partisan fights still centered on bills advanced by the Republican-controlled legislature that sought to overturn the Democratic governor's COVID-19 executive orders.
Cooper has already vetoed bills that would have partially reopened gyms and bars over his wishes. Dozens of pieces of legislation he must act upon through July 6 include measures reopening bowling alleys, amusement parks and other entertainment centers. Late Thursday and early Friday, Republicans also approved similar reopening legislation for many of these businesses with slightly different language than in previously approved measures.
Republicans said expanding commerce, coupled with strong social distancing directives, would put people back to work. Democrats countered that Cooper was best able to respond to the virus, and recent upticks in cases warranted a slow reopen.
"There is a genuine difference in philosophy" between the parties on reopening during the pandemic, said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and House Rules Committee chairman. Republicans also sent to Cooper a bill that would force governors to get the approval of the Council of State for future statewide emergency declarations and when categories of businesses are closed.
The legislature left Raleigh without extending, for now, a previously approved temporary health exemption on the state's face mask ban set to expire Aug. 1. The House approved a proposed extension until February, but it was removed during negotiations with the Senate. Cooper's statewide mandate for face coverings to address COVID-19 was to begin Friday afternoon and last through at least July 17.
A bill later crafted by both parties designed to improve access to mail-in absentee balloting this fall won overwhelming support. Even a measure that takes away several of Cooper's seats on the state Board of Transportation and gives them to legislative appointees passed comfortably when added to provisions that addressed the Department of Transportation's recent fiscal crisis.
"We seem to see continued bipartisanship in the chamber," said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat and minority whip. But he said the two parties still don't see eye-to-eye on Democratic efforts to increase maximum weekly unemployment benefits, expand Medicaid through the 2010 federal health care law and address policing reforms.
The demonstrations nationally and in North Carolina against racism following George Floyd's May 25 death at the hands of police contributed to renewed interest in criminal justice reform. A pair of measures languishing since last year were revived earlier this month and sent to Cooper. The governor announced Thursday he had signed one that will let more people get their criminal records cleared of lower-level and non-violent convictions.
Senate Republicans earlier had approved additional money toward signage adjacent to three Confederate monuments on the old Capitol grounds that would have provided context about them to address racial justice. But that got pulled in part because the monuments are no longer there - Cooper ordered last weekend the monuments be removed in the name of public safety following the partial destruction of one monument by demonstrators.