State Senate’s attempt to override veto of ‘Free the Smiles Act’ fails

By: - March 9, 2022 7:30 pm

Senate Republicans could not muster the three-fifths majority it needed Wednesday to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill allowing parents to decide whether children wear face masks in schools.

The veto override of Senate Bill 173, also known as the “Free the Smiles Act,” failed on a 27-22 vote. The Senate needed 29 of the 49 votes present to move the bill to the House. Three-fifths of that chamber is also needed to override a veto.

Every Senate Democrat voted against the veto override, including two who had supported the bill that won bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Sen. Ben Clark, (D-Cumberland) and Sen. Kirk deViere (D-Cumberland), previously voted in favor of the bill.

The Raleigh News & Observer reported Wednesday that Cooper has endorsed deViere’s primary opponent, Val Applewhite a former Fayetteville City Council member, in the May 17 race.

Cooper said that Applewhite “isn’t afraid to stand up to Right Win Republicans, the paper reported.

The bill was moved to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate at Sen. Bill Rabon’s, (R-Brunswick), request.

Sen. Jay J. Chaudhuri

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, (D-Wake), said the law is not needed, explaining that 110 of 115 school districts have already made masks optional.

“Today, with school mask mandates virtually gone, we’re going to vote on a bill about mask mandates and that doesn’t make any sense,” Chaudhuri said. “Today’s vote is yet another attempt by the governing majority to politicize masks and push for more extreme legislative overreach.”

He noted that Thursday marks the first anniversary of when Cooper and legislative leaders announced a bipartisan bill to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction.

That bill, Chaudhuri said, gave local school boards the authority to act in the best interest of their communities.

“Let’s be clear, this bill enacts a statewide mandate,” Chaudhuri said. “It takes away the ability of local health officials to respond to any resurgence of the variant that we might confront in the future.”

School boards have largely heeded Cooper’s recommendation to lift face mask mandates. The governor said last month that an increase in vaccinations and falling infection and hospitalization rates warrant lifting the mask mandate.

He was also critical of SB 173.

Gov. Roy Cooper

“The bipartisan law the legislature passed and I signed last year allows local boards to make these decisions for their own communities and that is still the right course,” Cooper said. “Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future.”

In a statement, Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), accused Democrats of working against parents.

Sen. Deanna Ballard

“This bill provides a level playing field for all families across the state since politicians continue to ignore the parents who are speaking up for their children,” said Ballard, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s disheartening that the Senate Democrats would choose to turn their backs on families and disregard the effects masking has on our young children.”

The statement acknowledged that most districts have dropped mask mandates. It pointed out, however, that some are “inexplicably requiring students to wear masks even though COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations are declining.”

“This legislation would not have prevented students from wearing masks if they chose to or if there was an outbreak,” the statement said.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.