Senate passes compromise masking bill as Democrats walk out over campaign finance reform addition

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Thursday, June 6, 2024
Masking bill passes Senate, Dems walk out in campaign finance protest
Senate Republicans passed a compromised version of HB 237, which places more restrictions on wearing a mask in public.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Senate Republicans passed a compromised version of HB 237, part of a vote which sparked a walk-out from Senate Democrats.

The Unmasking Mobs and Criminals Act enacts more restrictions on wearing a mask in public and stronger penalties for those who wear a mask while committing a crime.

Last month, the House voted against the bill, following pushback from healthcare advocates and people with medical issues who felt it was too far-reaching. That vote led to a conference committee and updated text, which includes a specific exemption for "any person wearing a medical or surgical grade mask for the purpose of preventing the spread of contagious disease." Other exemptions include masks for traditional holiday costumes, theatre productions and work-related reasons.

"The new language in the mask bill was suggested by DHHS to ensure that individuals who have legitimate health concerns can wear a surgical or medical-grade mask in public," said Lauren Horsch, Spokeswoman for Senate President Phil Berger, in a statement.

The bill states that a person must remove their mask upon request by law enforcement or by the owner of public or private property for the purposes of identification.

"I'm not sure it provides enough protection for people who have health concerns about protecting their health when they're in public. And there are a couple of provisions in there, I think, that raised a few questions," said Rep. Brandon Lofton, a Democrat who represents Mecklenburg County and serves as the House Legislative Chair.

While the first four sections of the bill read Thursday morning were about masking, the fifth section focused on campaign finance reform.

"The campaign finance changes in the bill are so significant that we did not even discuss or examine the mask provisions," said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, who represents Wake County and serves as the Senate Democratic Whip.

In response to the added section, Democrats protested the vote, walking out of the legislative chambers. Ultimately, all 28 Senate Republicans who were present supported the legislation. On the Democratic side, a dozen lawmakers, including Chaudhuri, were listed as "Not Voting," while the other eight Democrats were listed as "Excused Absence."

"It removes the compliance of a federal political action committee with state election laws. Those state election laws provide for additional disclosures of whether a millionaire, for example, makes a contribution to the Federal Election Political Action Committee and to it removes any registration that's required by the Political Action Committees, Treasurer or Deputy Treasurer. By removing the Treasurer from this bill, the State Board of Elections believes that there's some kind of campaign finance violation. They're not going to be able to subpoena anybody from that political action committee here in the state of North Carolina," Chaudhuri asserted.

He also criticized how the bill was introduced, through a conference committee, rather than as a standalone bill.

"It is a significant change that warrants more sunlight, more debate and more discussion by the public. The fact of the matter is, they tried to rush this through the dark of night, so to speak, without any discussion or debate that it would arise," said Chaudhuri.

"I think more transparency and more disclosure is good for democracy," added Lofton.

While acknowledging concerns about how the bill was introduced, Jim Stirling, a Research Fellow with The John Locke Foundation, believes some of the rhetoric surrounding its impact is overblown.

"If a billionaire wanted to drop, I'm going to use this as an example, $250,000 into a state party committee or an executive leadership committee, they can currently do that under state law. That's not being changed here, and they already have that avenue to do it. Nothing here is being modified to allow billionaires to come in and just drop more money into it. The real change is mostly paperwork changes," said Stirling.

In a statement, Lauren Horsch, Spokeswoman to Senate President Phil Berger wrote:

"Elections made during the 2020 election that benefited certain political organizations that were aligned with Democratic groups. That decision essentially changed campaign finance laws without legislative action and treated political organizations differently because of their affiliation. This change brings much needed parity and restores our campaign finance laws to where they were before the state board's collusive decision - and highlights the need for a bipartisan board of elections."

"It doesn't really address any of the monetary changes of committees, and it doesn't change anything about state level executive committees or party committees because they can already receive unlimited contributions," said Stirling.

The bill now heads to the House.