Outgoing NC governor signs second measure whittling new Democratic governor’s power

Governor-elect Roy Cooper holds a press conference to complain about efforts by Republicans to cut the power of the Governor's office during the special session of the General Assembly that is going on a few blocks away on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.
Governor-elect Roy Cooper holds a press conference to complain about efforts by Republicans to cut the power of the Governor's office during the special session of the General Assembly that is going on a few blocks away on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.

North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday signed into law the second of two bills diminishing the authority of the incoming Democratic governor, but said he resisted efforts to weaken Roy Cooper even more.

Together, the new laws enable the Republican-controlled legislature to forcefully assert its constitutional power as the dominant branch of government.

Democrats and national political pundits called the legislature’s actions in last week’s special session a GOP “coup” aimed at nullifying Cooper’s narrow victory over McCrory in last month’s election. Hundreds of protesters stormed the Legislative Building on Thursday and Friday, leading to dozens of arrests. But McCrory on Monday downplayed the impact of the legislation.

He said he worked closely with legislative leaders to protect the separation of powers.

“Due to these efforts, I have come to realize that the current changes to executive authority in House Bill 17 have been greatly exaggerated by misleading TV ads, paid protesters and state and national media outlets,” McCrory said in a statement released by his office.

Yet the balance between branches had been an ongoing issue during McCrory’s term in office. The governor successfully sued legislative leaders for overreaching their authority by making appointments to several boards under the executive branch.

HB17 gives the state Senate authority to confirm or reject the governor’s selections for Cabinet positions, slashes the number of political appointees the governor can have from 1,500 to 425, moves some authority from the State Board of Education to the Republican elected last month as schools superintendent, Mark Johnson, and prevents the governor from appointing members of the boards of trustees for UNC system schools.

While minimizing the rest of the provisions in the bill, McCrory said he had a “major disagreement” over the requirement that the Senate confirm gubernatorial Cabinet choices.

“This is wrong and short-sighted and needs to be resolved through the leadership skills of the governor-elect working with the legislature beginning in January,” he said. “With this in mind, I will sign House Bill 17.”

McCrory said his behind-the-scenes work included deterring a proposal to expand the state Supreme Court by two members. That would have erased the 4-3 political party edge on the court that Democrats won in the November election.

“I also successfully worked to deter any efforts to expand the composition of our Supreme Court,” McCrory said in his statement.

The disclosure counters the state GOP executive director’s criticism of reporters last week for reporting supposedly baseless rumors. “The press fell hook, line and sinker for a court expansion crisis,” Dallas Woodhouse said in an email last week.

McCrory also said he successfully fought against efforts to move the departments of commerce and information technology from the governor’s authority.

The inside view of Republican caucus discussions shows how sweeping an agenda GOP lawmakers had when McCrory called them back into session to deal with disaster relief funding.

McCrory had to sign or veto the bills by the end of the year or else hand them over to Cooper, who would have vetoed them. The General Assembly has enough Republicans in both chambers to override vetoes.

The other bill that came out of the special session and was quickly signed into law was Senate Bill 4. It splits the state and county elections boards evenly among Republicans and Democrats rather than keeping them under the control of the governor’s party. It says the Republicans will chair the boards in even-numbered years, which is when major elections are held.

It also merges the elections, public ethics and lobbying regulation functions of three agencies into a single one.

SB4 gave McCrory the authority to make a one-time appointment to fill a vacancy on the state Industrial Commission for a six-year term in addition to the unexpired three-year term of a commissioner who resigned for health reasons. Normally a vacancy replacement fills out only the remainder of a term.

McCrory appointed Yolanda Stith, the wife of his chief of staff, to the commission, which hears appeals of worker compensation rulings.

McCrory said SB4 would “reorganize a broken election process, bringing stronger ethics and a fair and transparent system to ensure consistent application of rules and procedures across our state.”

As for HB17, the governor said, “This bill enhances state employee policies, transfers school safety programs to the education department, allows our state legislature to make university trustee appointments, and clarifies the roles and organizational structure of the superintendent of public instruction and board of education — hardly extreme changes.”

While the bills are now law, the State Board of Education in a meeting scheduled for Tuesday is scheduled to consider a lawsuit over HB 17. Cooper has also threatened to sue over provisions in one or both of the bills.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO