by Julie Havlak, Carolina Journal News Service

Lawmakers are returning to Raleigh, and they have a loaded agenda. 

The legislative session begins Wednesday, Jan. 13, when lawmakers will deal with the pandemic, pass a budget, complete redistricting, and tackle needed reforms. Republicans remain in control of both chambers, but they lack the numbers to override any vetoes from Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper. 

John Locke Foundation’s government affairs team on Monday, Jan. 11, told listeners at a virtual Shaftesbury Society event what to expect. 

Republicans still aim to restrict the governor’s powers under the Emergency Management Act. They tried to trim Cooper’s powers and reopen businesses during the past session. The bills flopped after Cooper vetoed them. 

But this time Republicans could recast the issue as a bipartisan shield against future abuses, says Becki Gray, JLF senior vice president of government affairs and outreach. The bill could take effect after the pandemic ends. 

“What doesn’t make sense to anyone is that anyone should be given those powers for months and months on end,” Gray said. “No matter which side of the political spectrum you sit on, this is an insurance policy, so there’s not an opportunity for that other guy to abuse the power.”

The coronavirus has created new opportunities for reform — especially in health care and regulations. Lawmakers should boost the supply of health care and lower its cost, said Jordan Roberts, JLF government affairs associate. 

Telemedicine providers currently can’t treat patients across state lines. And providers have to get state permission to expand their health care equipment and facilities.

North Carolina should also help increase people’s access to health care by freeing telehealth from red tape. Repealing the Certificate of Need laws that restrict the supply of care would also help drive down costs, said Roberts.

Republican lawmakers remain unlikely to pass Medicaid expansion. But they are pushing Association Health Plans, which would help make health insurance less expensive for smaller businesses. These plans help small businesses band together when bargaining with insurers. 

“A lot of these reforms will really drive down the cost of health care, extend access to folks that live in medically underserved areas, and create a more functional health care market as we reel from the pandemic,” Roberts said. 

North Carolina’s leaders should also streamline the regulations that govern how people can work. There is an opportunity to help workers re-enter the labor market, said Roberts. Occupational licensing reform would ease regulatory burdens on workers.  

“We’ve seen so much devastation and heartbreak that’s come from COVID,” Roberts said. “Tons of people have lost work, they’re out of job and we can help these workers by rolling back regulations that would hinder someone from entering the job market.”

Lawmakers will target the damage from the pandemic and the shutdowns. But their budget remains uncertain with the economic downturn. 

North Carolina has kept spending restrained during the past decade, putting the state in a better position for the pandemic. But North Carolina needs a constitutional amendment to protect taxpayers, Gray said.

“The budget is a question mark right now,” said Leah Byers, JLF government affairs associate. “But the uncertainty around this does highlight an opportunity. … It’s admirable to budget well during good times, but it’s much more hard during bad times. Something like a spending limit in our state constitution really could be a natural next step.”

After a contentious election, Republican and Democrat lawmakers will draw new districts for the next election. North Carolina could gain a congressional seat from census results. 

“That’s going to take up a lot of time and energy,” Gray said. 

But both parties are focusing on broadband access. Remote learning and telehealth have made broadband a major legislative priority, said Gray. 

“It’s difficult enough for kids to stay on task and in front of a computer screen for six hours a day,” Gray said. “That’s hard enough. But for many of our students, there’s a real challenge with access to broadband and even being able to get onto that Zoom call with their teacher.”

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