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Gov. Cooper Vetoes Bill With Death Investigation Records Change

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a broad health measure late Monday because it contains a provision that addresses the confidentiality of death investigation records. Opposition to the item has served as a rallying cry for demonstrators for racial justice outside the Executive Mansion for days.

The veto decision by the Democratic governor came even as it appeared his administration was OK with letting the full bill become law, and then work with the Republican-controlled General Assembly to repeal quickly the portion that Cooper told a key senator raised “concerns about unintended consequences.”

In his veto message, Cooper said the provision could limit 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,” he wrote.

The state constitution required that he act on the measure before midnight or it would become law on its own. North Carolina governor can’t issue line-item vetoes.

The provision would have made clear that death investigation records held by law enforcement and deemed confidential under public records law retain that same confidentiality when handed to a state medical examiner. Public records and prisoner advocates contend it could have made investigations into deaths occurring in police custody or at a jail less transparent.

Protesters have been camped outside the Executive Mansion since last week, demanding that Cooper veto the measure. They say the provision runs counter to the calls for racial justice that have intensified in North Carolina since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some protesters at the mansion have been arrested.

The House Rules Committee had recommended earlier Monday repealing the provision, which was contained in the health measure that the General Assembly approved in late June with only one lawmaker voting no. The House was scheduled to vote on the measure Tuesday, but the veto could make action moot. Lawmakers also could now attempt to override the vetoed bill, or pass again the same measure as before — absent the provision — and send it to Cooper.

In a letter last week to Senate Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon, Cooper asked that the General Assembly repeal the records provision this week. Cooper said the language was made public for months and received no opposition until after it passed the General Assembly. But he said the rest of the measure contained several important provisions sought by his Department of Health and Human Services, some of which will help the state draw down millions of dollars in federal funds. Those would have remained in effect.

Cooper had asked Rabon that the repeal be either passed in a standalone bill or with other “noncontroversial legislation."

The bill that cleared the House Rules Committee did contain other legislation addressing face coverings. The bill would make permanent a health exemption on the state’s face mask ban, which is otherwise set to expire Aug. 1. But it also would let business owners and operators avoid civil and criminal liability from Cooper's current statewide face coverings mandate and other local mandates as long as they post signs at the front of their establishments requiring customers to follow the rule.

The Senate isn't expected to return to work until Wednesday. The legislature also could consider several other veto override votes before they adjourn for two months. Cooper vetoed eight bills last week, several of which were related to Republican attempts to essentially overturn Cooper's executive orders that have kept certain businesses shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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