Ford

Red glare of bursting overrides

July 7, 2012 

Editor's note: Steve Ford’s July 8 column should have said that Gov. Beverly Perdue is the second North Carolina governor to exercise veto power, not the second to have that power. The gubernatorial veto was authorized when Jim Hunt was governor. Mike Easley, who followed Hunt and preceded Perdue, was the first governor to cast a veto.

A proper Fourth of July fireworks show ends with a grand finale – a climax of cascading colors and chest-rattling blasts. Lots of bangs, no whimpers.

When the General Assembly brought its session to a close, as it did for all intents and purposes two days before the big holiday, there also were plenty of bangs. But the Democrats whose world had at least temporarily come to an end couldn’t be blamed for a little whimpering. They’d been spanked. They weren’t used to it. It must have hurt.

“Ka-boom!” went the first Republican-led override to force a high-impact bill into the statute books over Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto. “Ka-blam!” went the second override. “Ka-blooey!” went the third. Hand it to the GOP chieftains – they had a sense of drama, plus the organization and discipline to pull off a Jones Street blockbuster.

It probably crossed a few Republican minds that this was a fitting way to mark the wind-up of their party’s first two-year turn at the legislative helm in more than 100 years.

This was their story, and they stuck to it: They cut back on regulations that hinder businesses and keep them from adding jobs. They cushioned the shock of necessary budget cuts by restoring some money for the public schools. They gave teachers and state employees raises that, even if small, were the first in four years. They balanced the budget without raising taxes and required the government to “live within its means.”

Oh, and they moved to tap local energy supplies and closed a loophole that allowed condemned murderers to dodge their date with the executioner.

Perdue is just the second governor to have veto power, with North Carolina being the final state to extend that privilege. And Republican victories in the 2010 elections led to the first instance in which a governor of one party went head-to-head with a House and Senate ruled by the other tribe.

Ratcheting up the tension were the demands of budgeting amid the economic wreckage of a deep recession. Something had to give, and Republicans were adamant that it would be on the spending side. The tried-and-true Democratic formula – cut some spending, raise some taxes, spread the pain – never had a prayer.

The conflict ignited a year ago when Perdue vetoed the first budget that GOP legislators dropped on her desk. Bam – veto overridden. But what was the governor to do when the second budget, while perhaps marginally better than the first, featured Republican nose-thumbing at key Democratic priorities large and small?

What she did, basically, was offer to surrender if she’d be allowed to keep her sword. All she asked for was an extra $100 million, to be drawn from reserves. The money would be spent mostly on education, with a little going toward a couple of favorite Democratic causes that also enjoyed some GOP support (compensation for people involuntarily sterilized, helping the November elections to run smoothly).

It was a strong case. The Republican-approved budget would leave the schools with $190 million less than they had this year, when they already were reduced to short rations. Adding some of that back would save teaching jobs and help kids learn. On a $20-plus billion budget, it looked like a modest tweak.

Nix, said the legislative signal-callers. Vetoed, snapped Perdue. Overridden, retorted the Republicans. Not that they didn’t wangle a few necessary votes by throwing some bones to a handful of susceptible Democrats – folks who won’t be hobnobbing at the governor’s gingerbread mansion any time soon.

Perdue insisted she remained a supporter of the death penalty even as she vetoed a bill designed to get North Carolina back in the execution business.

Her line was that any death penalty regime must be scrupulously fair. And the so-called Racial Justice Act, despite being anathema to prosecutors, was a Democratic legislature’s attempt three years ago to ensure that race wasn’t a factor in capital sentencing.

Republicans thought it was all an anti-death penalty ploy. The law would be gutted. And when Perdue balked, they told her what they thought of her objections. Overridden!

If there’s natural gas lurking in Triassic Basin bedrock – a swath stretches from the western Triangle down through Chatham, Lee and Moore counties – then GOP legislators stand with the gas companies. Get it out of there, and soon! Jobs and energy independence are at stake!

Well, maybe. But the drilling technique called fracking uses mega-millions of gallons of water, in a state where fresh water often runs short. Not only that, but the water ends up polluted. Perdue said unh-uh. Legislators said uh-huh. That was the third big override to go through on Monday.

The Senate, feeling good, closed up shop. The House returned Tuesday to tie up a few loose ends. Then it was time for all our Republican legislators to celebrate their declaration of independence from many moons of Democratic rule. Fireworks? The Democrats had seen enough.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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