BIPARTISAN ABSENTEE BALLOT REFORM IN NC HOUSE WOULD CUT ONE WITNESS: With uncertainty looming over how serious coronavirus will be this fall, a bipartisan push at the state legislature would make it easier for North Carolinians to vote by mail this year. State officials are expecting a massive increase in people wanting to vote by mail in November. The legislature wants to make sure that goes smoothly, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, who has co-sponsored a new elections bill along with one fellow Democrat and two Republicans. People who vote by mail now have to find two people to serve as witnesses while they vote. But the bill filed Friday would drop that requirement to just one witness. Voters are currently not allowed to request absentee ballots by email or fax, but this bill would lift those restrictions. Bob Phillips, executive director of the group Common Cause NC, said in a news release Friday that the bill is “a positive step” but could still use some additional provisions.
STATE GOVERNMENT FACES A $5 BILLION BUDGET SHORTFALL DUE TO PANDEMIC: State budget writers got some brutal, if expected, news Friday: North Carolina's tax revenues will likely come in nearly $5 billion below what lawmakers expected just three months ago because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This blows a massive hole in the state budget, endangering employee salaries, education funding and a host of other priorities. It may also be an optimistic view. Economists for Gov. Roy Cooper's administration and the General Assembly, who worked together on a consensus forecast released Friday, factored in the impact of the pandemic, but they did not account for a potential second surge of the virus this fall, which many public health experts fear. "That possibility represents an economic risk that is not contemplated in this consensus forecast," the group wrote. The state also expects its Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund, drawn from gasoline taxes and used to build and maintain roads, to collect $774 million less then budgeted for, General Assembly leaders said in a joint statement Friday afternoon.
NC'S HEALTH EXPERTS ARE LEERY OF SITTING DOWN IN RESTAURANTS AT THIS TIME: Wohl: “Going to a crowded restaurant or pool or store would cross a line for me. Same for air travel until the rates on new infections drop substantially.” Permar: “Probably not, spending time in a room with unmasked people who are talking is one of the risk factors for transmission. I will probably continue to use takeout, and possibly sit outdoors at a restaurant.” Moody: “I will not go to restaurants right away, tempting though it is. Thinking of the usual places my family goes to, it is hard to social distance in the dining rooms. I might consider going to a location with outdoor seating if there were good spacing, but even there, I think I will have to wait a bit to see how things go in the first few weeks before committing.” Petteway: “Eventually, yes. We should all continue to support our restaurants as you feel comfortable. For right now, I will continue to support my neighborhood restaurants by ordering takeout and doing curbside pickup.” Barzin: “It’s something I would consider in the right circumstances. … I think it’s going to be learning what restaurants are doing to keep people safe. ... If people around me are wearing masks, the restaurant has really good techniques in terms of not having a lot of people waiting in a waiting area and a format for getting people in and out, and they have a reserved time for how long you can stay there, etc., it makes me much more comfortable than if it was just what we were doing beforehand.”
TRUMP PANDERS TO RELIGIOUS EXTREMISTS AND DECLARES CHURCH SERVICES "ESSENTIAL": President Trump on Friday called on states to allow places of worship to open immediately and threatened to “override” any governors who do not comply with his demand, opening a new cultural and political fight over when to lift public health restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Trump did not specify what legal authority he has to back up his threat, and White House officials declined to answer questions about what actions he was prepared to take, leaving it unclear how serious the president is about following through on his declaration. Trump said he is deeming places of worship “essential services” that can operate even when other establishments are closed as a safety precaution. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump said during a brief appearance in the White House press room as the administration released new pandemic guidance for places of worship. “It’s not right.” Public health officials continue to warn against mass gatherings or settings in which people will be in close quarters, and note that religious gatherings have been the source of several outbreaks. Some states put congregations in the same opening category as theaters.
CHINA MOVES TO TIGHTEN ITS GRIP ON HONG KONG: The territory’s fate is once again being decided in faraway halls of power, as Beijing moves forward with plans to strip some of the autonomy the territory was supposed to enjoy for 50 years after Britain returned it to China in 1997. The new national security laws, outlined at the annual session of China’s legislature on Friday, will likely curtail some of the civil liberties that differentiate Hong Kong from the rest of the country. And they take aim at the mass protest movement that showed the world last year the extent to which people were willing to go to protect their hybrid home. With tensions between the United States and China growing, some have characterized the fight for Hong Kong’s future as a skirmish in a more fundamental clash of civilizations. Beijing considers its intervention in Hong Kong a necessary move for maintaining the country’s sovereignty, while Washington considers it a full-frontal attack on the city’s autonomy. In both worldviews, Hong Kong again is caught in the middle. Just as under colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong can neither choose their own leader nor fully shape how their government is run. Promised political reforms never materialized. Booksellers critical of the Chinese leadership were snatched from the streets of Hong Kong and ended up in China. The catalyst for last year’s mass protests, a now-revoked extradition bill, underlined Beijing’s ability to, at any moment, threaten Hong Kong’s freedoms. The pressure has continued to intensify. In January, China replaced its top representative in the city with a senior official known for his harsh stance on security. Some of Hong Kong’s most august pro-democracy figures were arrested last month.