RALEIGH — The Republican-controlled General Assembly again fell short Wednesday in overriding several of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes. The unsuccessful votes for the GOP mean directives within the governor's COVID-19 executive orders that keep many businesses closed remain intact.
Four vetoes upheld in House or Senate votes were related to bills seeking to lift some of Cooper's decisions limiting business activities or mass gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gyms, bars, skating rinks and other venues, some of which were addressed in these vetoed bills, have been closed by Cooper since March. A fifth veto — on a bill addressing concealed carry inside certain churches — also was upheld.
Republicans passed the virus-related bills in response to constituents and trade groups pleading for help, worried that they'll have to permanently close and lay off their employees.
The sustained vetoes extend a winning streak for Cooper on vetoes since Democrats won enough seats in the 2018 elections that eroded the Republicans’ previous veto-proof majorities. Cooper has issued 25 vetoes since April 2019. None of them have been overridden.
Legislative Democrats came again to the aid of Cooper, who said reopening too fast would exacerbate case and hospitalization numbers, which have increased in recent weeks. They point to other states such as Arizona and Florida as places that reopened too quickly and where cases have spiked. His administration has said the targeted industries conduct activities at higher risk for spreading the coronavirus.
“The number of COVID cases keep going up and up in North Carolina,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, after the override votes. “We’re getting closer and closer to what we hope will be school reopening day, and we need to prioritize saving lives and getting back to school, and these bills would have done the opposite.”
GOP legislators accuse Cooper of arbitrarily singling out the shuttered industries, contributing to double-digit unemployment in the state, and failing to get the backing of the Council of State members before implementing the orders. One of the five upheld vetoes addressed a bill that would have forced governors to get support from a majority of Council members to enforce extended emergency declarations.
A judge did step in on Tuesday and allowed several dozen bowling alleys to reopen.
The measure drawing the most debate Wednesday would have allowed concealed weapon permit holders to carry a handgun at a religious place of worship that is also the location of a private school when school activities aren't happening. The measure pitted gun-rights groups and religious conservatives against gun-control advocates.
Standalone churches can already allow concealed weapon holders to carry a handgun, and Republicans described the measure as giving the same protections to all religious houses of worship. But critics said the measure would only increase the potential for violence.
Republicans were frustrated by the concealed weapons override failure, particularly since a dozen Democrats had joined all House Republicans in voting for the final measure two weeks ago. But a half-dozen switched to Cooper on Wednesday. Another vetoed bill that would have reopened gyms originally had support from more than 15 Democrats before Wednesday.
“These were bipartisan bills that left this chamber,” House Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican. “It's sad that (Democrats) don't listen to the people at home, they don't represent the people. They follow the orders of Gov. Cooper.” Democrats said Wednesday there were no such orders.
The votes came as the House and Senate convened for business at the same time for the first time in two weeks. After Wednesday, the General Assembly isn't expected to return to work until early September.
Before they left, lawmakers sent to Cooper legislation that would make permanent a health exception to the state’s face mask ban that otherwise would expire Aug. 1. Cooper has issued a statewide mandate to wear face coverings in public.
But the Senate refused to consider a House bill to make clear that K-12 public schools slated to open Aug. 17 could use remote learning during the first week of classes.
Senate leader Phil Berger said Wednesday he wants students back in class, with districts providing at-home learning for students with special health considerations. It's possible Cooper could issue an executive order that would attempt to essentially cancel the first-week prohibition.