North Carolina legislators hit the ground running after the primaries for the short session in the General Assembly. But even if the session is short, there will be no shortage of big legislation up for debate.
There’s a Republican-backed bill to expand Medicaid sailing through the state Senate, a proposal for a Parents’ Bill of Rights that’s already meeting stiff opposition, and other bills with a lot of interest, like legalizing medical marijuana and sports gambling.
The Senate is also considering some key nominations for Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet, including Eddie Buffaloe to head the Department of Public Safety and Kody Kinsley as secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Buffaloe had his hearing last week, and Kinsley met with the Health Care Committee Wednesday morning.
The North Carolina legislature runs in two-year terms, with a long session in odd-numbered years and the short session in even-numbered years. The 2021 long session ran into this year and set a record for the longest long session at the North Carolina General Assembly.
“I think everybody is so weary from the 16-month long session we had,” said Rep. Gale Adcock, the House Democratic Whip from Wake County.
“There’s not a lot of appetite for sticking around more than six weeks, getting what we can get done, done. And getting out of there.”
“This is a group that, when they want to move fast, they can move fast,” she said.
And they have been moving fast.
Republicans, long opposed to Medicaid expansion in North Carolina, introduced a bill that would extend coverage to hundreds of thousands of people in the state. It’s a significant change in tone from some GOP leaders in the General Assembly.
And since the bill was introduced Wednesday, it’s already passed through three Senate committees. Medicaid expansion is now on the Senate floor for votes and could move over to the House this week.
There are still big question marks for when it goes to the House. Rep. Tim Moore, the top Republican in the House, has not said publicly whether he will support the bill.
Related: PODCAST: Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana, gun laws: Sen. Berger dives in deep
The federal government will cover most of the expenses for expanding Medicaid. Republicans who introduced the bill said Medicaid expansion would not have an impact on the state budget for North Carolina.
House Bill 149, Expanding Access to Healthcare, does more than expand Medicaid. It does away with much of the Certificate of Need rules, which require hospitals and other health care companies to get a state certificate to expand or add services. Currently, a hospital has to get permission from the state if it wants to add an MRI machine, build a drug addiction clinic and do almost any other major additions.
Republicans have long opposed the rules requiring Certificates of Need, so that provision could be a sweetener for conservatives to pass Medicaid expansion.
The bill also creates a new class of nurses, called advanced practice nurses, who can diagnose and treat more patients without a doctor’s oversight. Legislators from both parties have said they support this part of the bill as a way to expand health care access in rural areas.
The biggest points of contention over the Parents’ Bill of Rights involved teaching about LGBTQ+ issues in elementary schools and requiring schools to share student health information with parents.
The bill would ban teaching students in kindergarten through 3rd grade anything about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The provision that has attracted the biggest backlash is requiring schools to share mental health information with parents. LGBTQ+ advocates say that means if a high school student seeks help to come out as gay, the school would be required to tell the student’s parents.
"The bill is about increasing transparency and trust in our public schools," Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican, said at a news conference introducing the bill.
The bill is drawing comparisons to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Though Berger said the language is different in North Carolina’s bill.
In a statement, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said he’s opposed to the bill.
“Schools are grateful for involved parents, and we need even more of them working together with teachers to educate our children. However, the last thing our state needs is another Republican political ploy, like the bathroom bill, which hurt our people and cost us jobs, so let’s keep the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ culture wars out of North Carolina classrooms,” he said.
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups are lining up against the bill. There's a protest planned for outside the General Assembly Wednesday afternoon when the bill is expected to get a vote on the Senate floor. The Parents' Bill of Rights may have the votes to pass the Senate and the House, but Republicans will have a hard time overriding the governor's veto.
The one thing the legislature is required to do before July 1 is pass a new budget. If they can’t get a new budget passed, the current budget would carry over for another year.
The governor released his budget proposal earlier this month, which includes Medicaid expansion, raises for teachers and other state workers, more money for pre-K programs and schools.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly are working on their budget behind closed doors and have yet to release anything publicly.
The issue of Medicaid expansion led to a stalemate over the budget between the GOP-controlled legislature and the governor in 2019. Cooper has long called on the General Assembly to pass medicaid expansion, and that has come closer than ever in this session to becoming a reality in North Carolina.
Another Republican-sponsored bill, the NC Compassionate Care Act, would legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina. Across the country, 37 states have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana.
The bill would make it legal for people to get marijuana to treat a number of ailments, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and post traumatic stress disorder.
The medical marijuana bill has high-profile Republican sponsors and made quick progress through the Senate last year. It stalled out before making it to the Senate floor as the General Assembly got bogged down in redistricting last year.
The bill passed through a final committee Wednesday and will head to the Senate floor for a vote. It will still have to go through the North Carolina House.
A bill that would legalize betting on sports in North Carolina passed the state Senate in August and was sent to the House. The sports wagering bill has been sitting in the House Judiciary Committee since November.
Support for legalizing sports betting in North Carolina is split, and not necessarily down party lines like so many other issues. There are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the debate.
“When we’re creating something brand new, like sports wagering would be, we need to get it right. And we need to get it right the first time,” said Adcock, the Democratic Whip in the House. “We don’t need to pass a bill that has gaping holes like Swiss cheese and say, ‘oh we’ll come back and fix that later.’”
So the House could take its time with the sports gambling bill, and it will undoubtedly face some tough scrutiny from both sides of the aisle.