Last week in the North Carolina General Assembly seemed like the first week this year that was almost normal. We still had many members attending committee meetings by virtual means, but many were spread out in the committee rooms and wearing masks in many cases. I attended these in person so I could review the bills thoroughly.
The voting sessions in the House had extended voting times, up to 30 minutes, so that the Majority Leader and Minority Leader could record votes from members by proxy and announce the votes on the floor prior to the voting being closed on each bill that a roll call vote was required. I attended the sessions and voted in person, except for a few votes on Thursday afternoon on bills I had seen in committees and knew how I was going to vote. All my votes were officially recorded. I was then able to return to Brunswick County for another virtual meeting that night.
Some important bills came through committees and floor votes in the House and Senate last week, and some were signed into law by the Governor. One of the most anticipated bills was House Bill 1169 – Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020. This bill makes critical changes to the voting process for absentee ballots, prohibits all-mail-in elections and provides funds for distancing at local voting locations. Election officials cannot deliver an absentee ballot to anyone that does not officially request it. The absentee ballot must have a witness signature, printed name and address, not just two scribbled signatures, as in the past. Most of these changes are for the 2020 general election, and will be revisited in the 2021 long session. HB 1169 passed the Senate 37 – 12, passed the House 105 – 14, and was signed by the Governor on Friday.
Senate Bill 562 – The Second Chance Act allows expunctions of minor criminal charges and convictions under certain circumstances. It extends the expunctions from the criminal record of teenagers from age 16 to age 18, which complies with the previous Raise the Age juvenile justice legislation passed in a previous session. It also extends the right of expunctions to adults under certain conditions and approval of the District Attorney.
House Bill 594 – Temporarily Open Gyms/Health Clubs/Fitness Centers had been modified to allow not only gyms to reopen safely, but also restaurants and bars with indoor or outdoor seating or both. The Governor had just vetoed a similar bill involving restaurants and bars, but we will see if he chooses to also veto this one. Hopefully, the timing, the scope, and limitations of the bill will allow it to become law.
I previously mentioned a task force set up by Speaker Tim Moore that will deal some serious and uncomfortable issues of the day. The Task Force on Community Relations, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice has three Chairs appointed by the Speaker: Representative John Szoka of Fayetteville, a retired Army Lt. Colonel and mortgage lender; Representative Howard Hunter of Ahoskie, a funeral home owner; and Representative Dr. Kristin Baker of Concord, a physician/psychiatrist. Szoka and Baker are Republicans and Hunter is a Democrat. The committee was not appointed as of this writing, but the chairmanships are across party, racial, gender, and experience lines. I personally have high hopes that good things can come out of this task force for North Carolina.