2021 welcomes new laws and possibly more Covid-19 relief to aid cities

As of Feb. 1, vaping will no longer be allowed in parks or public places in New Hanover County. (Port City Daily/Johanna Still)

WILMINGTON — As 2021 gets underway, laws and ordinances passed last year by state and local leaders are going on the books. The biggest legislative change, however, is likely to come out of Washington, where Democrats will soon have control of the White House and Congress,  and possibly millions in new funding could be headed to the Wilmington area.

Close to home, puffing on an e-cigarette at a park or other public place as of Feb. 1 will be illegal in all areas of New Hanover County. Passed by the board of commissioners in November, the ordinance effectively equates “vaping” rules with those governing traditional smoking. 

Related: New Hanover County passes new rule limiting vaping, smoking in public

The use of e-cigarettes will be prohibited in all county and municipal buildings, vehicles and grounds. Vaping also will be banned in public places, such as restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. The ordinance will not apply to private homes, and vehicles or streets, sidewalks, vaping shops and designated smoking areas that are permitted by state law, according to a county news release.

Although the start of 2021 brought no significant new ordinances for Wilmington, officials say anticipated pandemic-related action from the new Congress will be a major boost for the city. The funding in last summer’s Cares Act went directly to states. North Carolina allocated more than $8 million to New Hanover County, which, in turn, disbursed more than $2 million to Wilmington and the beach towns, according to Tim Buckland, intergovernmental affairs coordinator for the county.

Once the results of Georgia’s U.S. Senate elections are certified (around the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration), Democrats are expected to move quickly on several Covid-19 relief bills. In addition to revisiting the failed legislation that would have sent $2,000 checks to most Americans, the new Congress is expected to funnel millions to state and local governments, funding that mostly was left out of the spending bill that passed in late December.

This time funding is expected to go directly to cities. Both Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (expected to be the new Senate majority leader) and President-elect Joe Biden have expressed strong support for more aid that would go directly to cities, according to Tony McEwen, legislative affairs director for the City of Wilmington. 

McEwen said the new Congress also is expected to push for a major national-infrastructure package, which could bring much-needed federal dollars to the rapidly growing Wilmington area. McEwen said such funding could be a major boost for large local infrastructure projects, such as the proposed rail realignment, which would create a direct rail route from the Port of Wilmington across the Cape Fear River.

New federal funding could also benefit Wilmington’s critical need for affordable housing, according to McEwen.

“We anticipate a great opportunity for a comprehensive and bipartisan infrastructure package that will aid projects in our growing region and improve our nation’s resiliency,” McEwen said.  “We feel strongly that congressional leaders and the incoming administration will act quickly to get more Covid relief dollars directly into the hands of local and state governments.”

At the state level, lawmakers got a jump on the new year when a dozen laws went into effect Dec. 1:

— The Second Chance Act provides more ways for people to get lower-level offenses cleared from their criminal records.

— The First Step Act gives judges more discretion to deviate from required long prison sentences in certain drug cases.

— As of Jan. 1, newly hired state employees and public school teachers will no longer qualify for state medical coverage when they retire, a move aimed at reining in future health-care liabilities. 

— Starting with the new year, any regular plate that’s at least seven years old on the vehicle’s registration renewal date will be replaced, according to the state The Division of Motor Vehicles said about 2.4 million plates will be replaced in 2021 as part of the registration renewal process.

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