Amid worries about COVID-19 and physical security, the North Carolina General Assembly officially began its two-year session Wednesday, with much of the usual pomp subdued in the name of safety.
The gavels went down at midday on a House and Senate that remained in Republican hands after the November elections. But the GOP still lacks veto-proof majorities, meaning Democrats led by Gov. Roy Cooper, who also won reelection, will have much to say about what legislative initiatives become laws. Coronavirus relief spending, a two-year state budget, remedial public education for K-12 students receiving uneven online learning for months and redistricting are among the top agenda items this year.
Unlike previous opening days, the families of senators and representatives were prohibited from joining the elected lawmakers on the floors for their swearings-in. The galleries largely were limited to relatives of first-term legislators and the media.
As expected, Republican Sen. Phil Berger of Eden was elected unanimously by his peers to a sixth term as Senate leader, while GOP Rep. Tim Moore of Kings Mountain won a fourth term as House speaker, also with the backing of Democrats.
Moore, whose election ties him with Liston Ramsey and Jim Black for the most two-year terms won by a speaker in state history, acknowledged challenges and uncertainty in his acceptance speech. He and Berger said separately that past prudent fiscal decisions put the state in a more favorable position to overcome them.
"North Carolinians want us to put partisan politics aside and create a state government and build on a state government that attracts success," Moore said. As a potential signal, Moore also Wednesday named four Democrats to chairmanships in regular policy committees — a first in several years.
Berger acknowledged efforts between him and Cooper to find consensus going forward. The year 2019 was marked by a budget impasse between Republicans and the governor that never got fully resolved — attributed mainly to differences over expanding Medicaid.
"I intend to work with all to find, develop, and expand common ground where it may exist, and I know many of you feel the same way," said Berger, an expansion skeptic.
Berger is second in longevity as Senate leader only to then-Sen. Marc Basnight of Manteo, who died just two weeks ago and whom Berger mentioned prominently in his speech. Berger's son -- recently elected state Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. -- administered the leadership oath to his father.
The Senate kept to traditions of a live national anthem performance and the presentation of flags by a high school ROTC group, but the House session was more muted. As a sign of the dampened festivities, deli platters and other food often brought in by legislators for friends and constituents on opening day were replaced by tables of water bottles and prepackaged chocolate cookies -- compliments of the Senate Republican Caucus.
Face coverings, while encouraged in the Legislative Building, are still not required. But all senators and all but a handful of House members wore masks — a marked increase compared to floor sessions in September. Unanimous mask-wearing in the Senate prevented a parliamentary tussle over adding a requirement to the Senate's operating rules. Moore, who wore a mask, said he'll still leave it to legislators to choose.
With concerns about last week's violence by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol spreading to state capitals, the presence of law enforcement officers was slightly elevated at the legislative complex in Raleigh. Berger called the mob "the most symbolic and troubling episode" of a "year punctuated by violence."
New House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat, said from the floor that events of the past couple of weeks should evoke legislators to choose cooperation and civil discourse: "All voices should matter and all voices should have an opportunity to be heard."
Wednesday also marked the first day for new Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican, as the Senate's presiding officer. Robinson is a former factory worker who vaulted to prominence following a gun-rights speech that went viral.
State law required the legislature meet for one day to organize, seat all 170 lawmakers and elect leaders. After Wednesday, they will not return until Jan. 27, when the legislation begins in earnest. Republicans hold 69 of the 120 seats in the House -- a four-seat increase compared with the past two years. The Democrats picked up an extra seat in the Senate, but the GOP retains a 28-22 seat advantage.