North Carolina governor vetoes masks bill largely due to provision about campaign finance

RALEIGH (AP) – Despite changes made to North Carolina’s masking bill to quell concerns over the removal of a pandemic-era health exemption, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said he vetoed the legislation on Friday mostly for a different reason: a campaign finance provision tacked on to the end during legislative negotiations.

The bill now heads back to the state legislature. Republicans hold narrow veto-proof majorities at the General Assembly, which overrode all 19 of Cooper’s vetoes last year.

It’s Cooper’s third veto of the year, and GOP lawmakers have yet to take up override votes on his previous two this session — although they may come soon.

The original bill version that passed through the state Senate prompted significant criticism over its removal of an exemption to public masking laws passed in 2020 that allowed people to wear a mask for health purposes. The exemption’s removal would have technically made masking for health reasons illegal in the state.

While the strikethrough of one line caught most people’s attention, the majority of the bill focuses on increasing penalties for people who wear masks while committing a crime or intentionally block roadways in demonstrations. Republican legislators advanced the legislation this session in part as a response to the use of masks during widespread campus protests over the war in Gaza, including demonstrations on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina.

The bill’s relatively smooth passage through the Senate stopped when it reached the state House, however, when Republican Rep. Erin Pare announced on X she wouldn’t vote for the bill without a health exemption. Because Republicans need every GOP vote to pass more polarizing legislation, the bill was sent to a committee of legislators to work out a compromise.

They reached a deal on the bill earlier this month, which notably added a health exemption for people who wear a “medical or surgical grade mask” to prevent the spread of disease. Law enforcement and property owners would also be allowed to ask someone to temporarily remove their mask to identify them under the new bill changes.

But another brand-new provision that caused outrage among Democratic legislators was the addition of a campaign donations clause that would allow wealthy donors to give money to special federal political organizations that can then send the money to state and county parties.

Cooper said in his veto statement that the legislation “created a gaping loophole for secret, unlimited campaign money” that could cause problems during an election year. He also said the legislation still does not fully protect people who wear masks for health reasons.

Republicans say the election finance addition was necessary to remedy problems with a 2020 State Board of Elections advisory opinion that affirmed campaign giving limits but hamstrung groups like the Republican Governors Association from aiding the state party.

Spokespeople for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Cooper’s veto.

Senate Democrats refused to vote on the bill due to the provision, and House Democrats expounded upon their worries that the legislation would create a lack of financial transparency in lengthy debate last week.

The House and Senate expect to take up their veto overrides next week before they go on a possible indefinite hiatus to resolve budget issues.

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