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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bill restricting public masking clears North Carolina legislature 

The bill limits how the public can mask up but also includes a sudden alteration to campaign financing in the battleground state.

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — The North Carolina House passed a controversial bill addressing both masking and campaign finance Tuesday despite public protest.

The bill originally centered around removing the Covid-19 pandemic-era health exemption to the ban on wearing masks that conceal the identity of the wearer that has been present in state law since the 1950s. 

Last week, Senate Republicans blindsided Democrats by including a change to campaign financing laws in the bottom of the anti-masking bill, with little-to-no notice before the session convened. Democrats in the Senate walked out in protest, and the Senate passed the bill with no votes in opposition. 

House Bill 237 passed 69-43 on Tuesday in the House where Republicans also hold a majority, after swiftly moving through the House Rules committee Tuesday. It will now go to Democrat Governor Roy Cooper’s desk, where he is expected to veto it. The Republican supermajority is expected to subsequently override and pass it into law. 

The bill does make an exemption that allows medical or surgical masks to be worn “for the purpose of preventing the spread of contagious disease,” though the exemption was not included when the bill was first heard by lawmakers. 

On the House floor Tuesday, Democrats raised concerns that residents would not be allowed to wear masks for other purposes other than contagious diseases, such as asthma, or because of air quality or pollen. The final version of the bill also removed a provision that required police to have probable cause to stop someone wearing a mask, and added a stipulation that an occupant of a property could request the wearer temporarily remove their mask to be identified. 

“This bill makes it impossible for people to go out into the world, to feel safe masking, to go to work, to support our economy and to participate in their daily lives and in society,” said Representative Sarah Crawford. She said her office received over 300 emails in opposition to the bill, along with phone calls and in-person visits. 

“This bill makes it possible for those who do choose to mask for health reasons to be discriminated against and harassed, by making it possible for anyone — and I mean anyone — to ask somebody to remove their mask almost for any reason,” Crawford said, voicing concern that it would result in citizen policing.  

Representative John Torbett said the bill is intended to be a “silent law” that doesn’t criminalize behavior that isn’t explicitly stated in the text. 

“With this legislation you will still have the right to wear a mask for your own safety, if you want to cut your grass, if you have pollen allergies, go right ahead because you're not going to be criminally charged for wearing that mask,” he said. 

Republicans emphasized on the House floor that police would not be making arrests just for masking, and that the purpose of the changes is to impose harsher penalties on masked crime. North Carolina has faced issues with pro-Palestine protestors closing highways for hours, while using masks and keffiyehs to disguise their identities. 

The bill will also change campaign financing laws in North Carolina.

Currently, Democrats are able to bring in outside funding because they have a traditional PAC that can move money from a super PAC, which has the ability to raise unlimited funds, to the state party.

Republicans do not have a regular PAC, and money has to move from their super PAC to the state Republican party, which limits their campaign spending. The structural difference between the two committees resulted in the Republican party being drastically outspent by the Democratic party in campaign funding in 2020. 

HB237 would remove reporting conditions that currently restrict federal political committees, and would require them to file with the state board and regularly submit contribution reports. 

Speaker of the House Tim Moore said that the purpose of the change is to even the playing field between the parties. 

“All this bill does is to treat the Republican groups and the Democratic groups exactly the same,” he said. 

Under the existing law, Moore said, Democrats are allowed to pump in “unlimited sums of money” while Republicans are unable to do the same. 

Moore also said the bill, which would be effective immediately once passed, was intended to settle the issue of campaign funds before the election. 

Last week, Senate Democrats said they thought the campaign finance change was in response to gubernatorial campaign ads Democrat Josh Stein had begun airing. The governor race is anticipated to be close, and a recent poll projects that Stein is leading. His Republican competitor, Mark Robinson, has yet to air any ads. 

House Democratic Leader Robert Reives called campaign financing “a big deal.”

“This is a seismic change in how that works,” Reives said. 

Follow @SKHaulenbeek
Categories / Elections, Financial, Health, Politics, Regional

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