RALEIGH — North Carolina’s General Assembly gathered last Wednesday to launch the 2021 session in which legislators from both sides of the aisle hope to lead the state away from 2020’s …
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RALEIGH — North Carolina’s General Assembly gathered last Wednesday to launch the 2021 session in which legislators from both sides of the aisle hope to lead the state away from 2020’s tumult.
The first day of a new session is typically more ceremonial than productive. This year’s, however, stifled by pandemic restrictions, lacked much of the event’s traditional pageantry.
“It was my fifth one, and certainly unlike the others inasmuch as we could not gather as we have,” said Sen. Valerie Foushee (D-Dist. 23), who serves Chatham and Orange counties. “There was not the same excitement of having your families present and being able to join members in reception and just getting a feel of bonding with your colleagues within your caucus and across the aisle.”
Despite its humdrum format, though, Foushee considered this session’s opening a greater success than some in year’s past. The timbre of discussion in Raleigh’s legislative building was dissimilar to the contentious debate that plagued last year’s Assembly. The most obvious manifestation of newfound harmony: almost everyone wore a mask.
“In the Senate chamber, every person had on a mask,” Foushee said. “Every single senator present in that chamber had on a mask.”
In the House of Representatives, too, most faces were masked, according to Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54), who serves Chatham and Durham counties.
“The speaker and majority leader, in particular, I know, made efforts within the (Republican) caucus to get people to wear masks and to be more active about protectionist measures,” he said.
Mask-wearing is a basic preventive measure touted by most health officials to stymie spread of the coronavirus disease. But in the year since COVID-19 first emerged in the United States, the decision to wear a mask has become less a metric of one’s interest in health, and more about political allegiance.
“But I think, with the numbers rising — not just the number of people infected by the virus, but indeed the rising numbers of people dying with the virus — and the underwhelming rollout of the vaccine,” Foushee said, “messages about caring for each other and respecting each other’s space are resonating.”
That most legislators chose to wear masks suggests a fresh determination to work together, Foushee said — a renewed interest in collaboration across party lines.
“I’ve had conversations with my Republican colleagues who say that is the intent,” she said, “and I have to believe that, based on where we are and, you know, the uncertainty of what’s going to happen in the near future. I just think that there is a sense of urgency among members of the General Assembly, that our goal should be about bringing relief to people in our state.”
Reives echoed Foushee’s optimism.
“I was really happy at the atmosphere,” he said. “I think there really has been effort on both sides to try and see if we can put away some of the differences that we’ve already had and try to move forward.”
The new session will be Reives’ first as House minority leader. In his new position of authority, he hopes to promote bipartisan efforts to improve the state’s pandemic response.
“You know, a lot of issues follow from COVID,” he said. “We need COVID monies, broadband is going to be addressed, education is going to get addressed … and we also know we’re going to have to address healthcare.”
Statewide, remote learning has often failed to uphold minimum education standards. In Chatham, nearly 22% of students received a D or F in a class during the first two grading periods of the current semester — a nearly 74% increase from last year, the News + Record previously reported.
“All of us are concerned about what we’re going to be looking like in the next school year,” Reives said. “We’ll have the highest — potentially the highest — failure rate that the state has had in over 100 years, at the end of this school year.”
The pandemic has also taxed healthcare institutions and laid bare systemic inequality.
“A lot of inequities and a lot of other issues we already had in healthcare are being exacerbated with the loss of jobs, loss of businesses, more uninsured care in hospitals,” Reives said.
According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina’s unemployment rate is still the highest it has been in almost seven years following decade highs over the summer.
“We’re trying to do something to spur growth,” Reives said, “and just show support for small businesses, and at the same time making sure that we’re showing support to those that are employed and unemployed, helping them get back on their feet.”
Identifying the state’s problems is easy, Reives said. But translating ideas into effective legislative policy will prove challenging. Besides having to bridge what has become a chasmic party divide, this year’s legislators must contend with a catalog of issues unlike anything previously addressed by the state government.
“We’re going to have to think unique because this is unprecedented,” Reives said. “… Because of the fact nobody’s ever had to do this before, you see a lot of struggling when it comes down to how people want to handle it.”
But the stakes are higher than ever before, and that alone, according to Foushee, behooves the General Assembly to shed its penchant for bickering in lieu of united service to the people of North Carolina.
“I heard an expression this morning where it was noted that where people were on the cliffs before, now we have people in the ravine,” Foushee said. “And so, they need to be rescued. Our focus must be on rescuing people in the ravines and ensuring that folks who are on the cliffs are not falling off.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @dldolder.
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