Despite protests, widespread criticism and a threat by the governor-elect to challenge in court any moves that he believes would unconstitutionally limit his power, the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature has passed changes that would severely limit the incoming Democratic governor’s power.
The legislature approved a proposal along party lines Friday that would effectively give Republicans control of the state Board of Elections during election years and split partisan control of local boards of elections, as opposed to giving the governor’s party the majorities on those panels. Outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed the bill into law Friday, despite not issuing any comment on the drama that has been wracking North Carolina politics since Wednesday.
The legislature also passed a bill that, for the first time in decades, would require the governor to get approval by the state Senate for his Cabinet appointees and end his ability to appoint members to the board of trustees of the powerful UNC school system. The bill would also drastically reduce the number of state employees the governor can directly hire and fire from 1,500 to 425.
The measures were just two of several bills the legislature considered in a last-minute, year-end special session reducing the governor’s influence in state government, the judicial branch, the education system and elections oversight, while strengthening the GOP-dominated legislature’s influence in all those areas.
Immediate reaction to the special session appeared sharply divided on partisan lines. Republican legislative leaders said the changes were long overdue to realign constitutional power in the legislature, though they admitted a Democratic victory had accelerated the timetable for the changes. Democratic lawmakers and activists derided their Republican colleagues’ attempts at a “power grab” and urged North Carolinians to come to Raleigh to protest.
Nonpartisan watchdogs, like Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina, said the changes go “far beyond the normal partisan wrangling and change of power.”
The timing in particular sparked widespread criticism that Republicans were playing politics after losing the governor’s election. Less than two weeks ago, McCrory conceded to Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) in the nation’s closest governor’s race of 2016.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported hundreds of protesters heeded Democrats’ calls and packed the capitol on Thursday and, to a lesser degree, on Friday. Several times, police arrested protesters after they refused to stop booing, chanting and cheering from the public galleries while lawmakers debated the bills. A reporter for an advocacy group who was in the galleries claimed to have been arrested as well. Each time there was a disturbance, GOP lawmakers closed the public galleries, pointing to a live stream people could watch instead.
Much of what’s happened over the past few days caught Democrats by surprise.
In his waning hours in office, McCrory convened lawmakers in Raleigh to pass a $200 million relief package for Hurricane Matthew and wildfire cleanup. Lawmakers passed the package, ended the special session Wednesday — then promptly started a new one and declined to say what it was about until the controversial bills were introduced.
In a news conference Thursday with local reporters, Cooper told the legislature to “go home” and warned they could be overstepping their bounds, politically if not constitutionally.
“This is about thwarting the governor’s ability to move us forward,” he said, promising to sue lawmakers for passing any law he deemed unconstitutional. “Most people might think that this is a partisan power grab. But this is more ominous.”
It’s an open question what the courts will make of these changes, said UNC law professor Michael Gerhardt. It’s notable, he said, that McCrory never said over the last four years: “I think I’m too powerful and you should look for ways to weaken my office.”
The last time GOP lawmakers called a high-profile special session, in March, they ended up ramming through one of the state’s most controversial laws in recent memory: a bill limiting what public bathrooms transgender people can use and municipalities’ ability to pass anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people.
National backlash to that bill contributed to McCrory’s upset. He was the only governor in 2016 to lose his seat and the only governor in North Carolina history to lose reelection. (Notably, Republicans in the state legislature kept their supermajority in November, even though a federal court found shortly before the election their electoral map illegally targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”)
Power tug-of-wars in North Carolina aren’t unprecedented. In 1972, when Jim Holshouser became the first Republican governor of North Carolina in the 20th century, Democrats in the legislature moved swiftly to give the Democratic lieutenant governor more control over the state. A decade later, the Democratic-controlled legislature tried to roll back those powers after voters elected the state’s first lieutenant Republican governor of the 20th century.
Republican Jim Martin was governor during that tumultuous time, yet he told told the News & Observer he thinks his party’s proposal to take away the governor’s ability to appoint members to the UNC board of trustees goes “too far.”
Indeed, the consensus in North Carolina political circles is that no power-stripping attempt has been as brazen as this one.
And it underscores how contentious relations between the governor and the legislature are expected to be next year. Cooper ousted McCrory by some 10,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast, and Republicans in the state legislature can veto Cooper anytime they want. Before Cooper was even sworn in, they signaled they have little intention of playing nice with him.
The message Friday was clear, Gerhardt said: “We have a legislature intent on keeping the score politically.”