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Death records secrecy bill is killed … twice

New bill containing uncontroversial provisions remains in limbo

“In my eight years in the General Assembly, the reason this bill is before you may be the most bizarre thing that I’ve ever dealt with.” — Rep. Josh Dobson (R-Avery, McDowell, Mitchell).

Dobson was referring to Senate Bill 380, a bill the House passed unanimously on Tuesday that has been the subject of multiple gut-and-replace changes, including one that would have made secret death investigation records.

SB 380 was introduced in March 2019 by Sens. Andy Wells (R-Alexander, Catawba), Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey), and Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell) as a bill about the state trail system. It passed the Senate before a House committee substitute turned it into a bill to reestablish the North Carolina Milk Commission.

The Milk Commission version of the bill stayed in the House Judiciary Committee until mid-June 2020, when it was transformed into “an act to clarify felonious possession of electronic sweepstakes machines.”

On Monday, it became the vehicle to revive the uncontroversial portions of Senate Bill 168.

SB 168, a bill ostensibly designed to make some technical modifications to block-grant funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, sparked protests and gained national attention for including a provision making death investigation records closed to the public.

On Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed SB 168.

“Senate Bill 168 includes a provision to change the handling of public records by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner which could have the unintended consequence of limiting transparency in death investigations. While I believe neither the Department of Health and Human Services which proposed it, nor the General Assembly which unanimously passed it had any ill intent, the concerns that have since been raised make it clear this provision should not become law,” Cooper wrote in a statement on Monday evening.

Strangely, a vote to override the governor’s veto was placed on Tuesday’s calendar, but the bill was later referred to the Senate Rules Committee where, presumably, it will be left to expire.

Shortly before the governor’s veto, the House Committee on Rules and Operations approved Senate Bill 232, a repeal of the death records investigation legislation.

SB 232 passed the House almost unanimously on Tuesday evening. The two “no” votes came from Representatives Michael Speciale (R-Craven) and Allison Dahle (D-Wake), the latter of whom also voted “no” on SB 168.

Asked why she voted against both the death investigation records legislation and the repeal of that legislation, Dahle told Policy Watch her Tuesday vote was a technical mistake.

“It was an operator error,” she said on Wednesday. “I thought I voted yes, and I can’t change it the day after.”

Later, the Senate concurred 43-4 and sent the measure on to Gov. Cooper.

In addition to repealing the death records secrecy provision, SB 232 indefinitely extends the law allowing people to wear face masks for public health reasons.

Meanwhile, as of Thursday, SB 380 — the measure to replace the noncontroversial parts of SB 168 — has not received final approval. It remains to be seen at this point whether lawmakers will take final action and send the measure on to the governor before concluding the 2020 short session.

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