RALEIGH — In a week that brought Gov. Pat McCrory stinging defeats, with lawmakers from his own party overriding his first two vetoes, the Republican governor Wednesday responded by criticizing legislators and throwing up roadblocks to the new laws that he had opposed.
McCrory vowed not to implement a new law requiring drug tests for some welfare recipients until the legislature finds the money to pay for it. And he said his administration would further scrutinize a new immigration law to make sure it complies with the “letter and spirit” of federal law.
In a lengthy written statement, the governor also struck out at the General Assembly over a budget provision that eliminates bonus pay for teachers who earn master’s degrees after the current school year, which ends next spring.
“Too much education policy was slipped into the budget bill,” McCrory said, “causing serious concerns, especially from our teachers and educators.” The governor announced he had found money to pay all teachers enrolled in master’s programs, only to have his spokeswoman modify that statement later. She said the money the governor was referring to will be in his proposed spending plan for the next budget year, which begins July 1.
McCrory also leveled a general attack on lawmakers for “passing some flawed legislation during the last hours of the session with little debate, understanding or transparency,” and for ignoring his concerns about various bills.
The governor’s announcement that the executive branch would not act on the new drug-testing law because it is an unfunded mandate drew criticism from Democrats and a cool response from Republican leaders.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, cited the state constitution’s requirement that the governor execute the laws the General Assembly passes. “We expect Gov. McCrory to perform his constitutional duty to enforce the law,” Berger said in a written statement his office released.
McCrory’s comments about funding for the drug-testing law, the immigration law and the master’s degree bonuses puzzled legislators – and at least one Republican legislator said the governor did not understand his bill.
“Now he’s trying to pass the blame for the budget he signed, and put himself above the law,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, said in written remarks. “Leadership is about hard work and principle – and the people of this state deserve better.”
The dust-up followed the Senate’s vote first thing Wednesday morning, taking just six minutes to override McCrory’s vetoes of the immigration and drug-testing bills, after the House vote to override the day before. That turned the pair of bills into law, effective immediately.
House Bill 392 allows welfare recipients to be tested if social workers suspect they have been abusing drugs, and to determine whether there are outstanding felony warrants or whether applicants have violated the terms of parole or probation. In some circumstances, they could be required to get fingerprinted to determine whether they are wanted on out-of-state charges. When McCrory vetoed the bill last month, he said it would be inconsistently applied across the state, that it has proven costly and ineffective in other states, and that it was unfunded.
McCrory elaborated on both bills in comments he made during a State Board of Education meeting in Raleigh after the Senate easily passed the veto overrides.
McCrory noted that the bill didn’t identify funding for either the state Department of Health and Human Services or for county social services departments for the testing.
Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Monroe and the main sponsor of the bill, said McCrory’s response didn’t upset him, but he said there is enough money in the budget to start the program.
The legislature did set aside money that can be used to implement the bill: $9 million is in budget reserves for the cost of a variety of new laws this fiscal year, and $11.6 million in the next fiscal year. A legislative staff fiscal analysis indicated that it would cost about $145,000 to set up the computer interface necessary to conduct the background checks.
Since the drug-testing portion of the new law doesn’t go into effect until around a year from now, that cost doesn’t have to be funded in the current budget. Later, the state Social Services Commission will write rules specifying what drug tests and background checks will be used, and that will determine future costs.
A swipe at High Point
On House Bill 786, the immigration bill, McCrory said he will direct the executive branch “to explore all legal and executive authority to ensure the letter and spirit of our nation’s immigration law is followed in this state.” The new law triples the period in which seasonal workers do not have to have their immigration status checked in the federal E-Verify system. The governor says it creates a loophole that industries besides agriculture will use.
Speaking at the state school board meeting about the immigration legislation, McCrory said, “I still strongly believe this is a flawed bill. In fact, I think it makes it more difficult for North Carolina workers to get jobs. It is my job to follow the law. It is also my job to enforce the law.”
McCrory added: “Some of the manufacturers in towns like High Point worked hard for this bill because they, frankly, want to hire illegal immigrants as opposed to North Carolina workers and paying good wages.”
The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Salisbury, said the legislation has already been thoroughly reviewed by lawyers. With Wednesday’s vote, the new law directs a multiagency study to begin addressing recommendations for changes to the criminal justice system affecting illegal aliens. The legislature expects to come up with a bill in the short session next year.
“I’m looking forward to an opportunity to sit down with the governor and discuss the bill,” Warren said. “It’s a very complex bill, very delicately balanced. It’s imperative we get an opportunity to sit down and make sure he has a clear understanding to avoid this type of confusion in the future.”
The governor’s swipe at the legislature – couched in praise for Republicans’ accomplishments this year and his hope for future bipartisan efforts – came as a surprise. It came a short time after Berger had complimented McCrory on the session.
Berger had echoed House Speaker Thom Tillis’ remarks from Tuesday, downplaying the split over the vetoes. Berger noted that there was only a significant difference of opinion on three bills – the two bills vetoed and a bill prohibiting Islamic law in family court that the governor let become law without his signature – out of hundreds of pieces of legislation sent him this year.
“I think that’s a remarkable achievement for a group of legislators and a sitting governor to have that much consensus on major legislation,” Berger said.
But that veneer of congeniality began to crack with the governor’s forceful reaction.
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said it’s possible McCrory has genuine differences with legislators over the new laws. But he said they are relatively minor pieces of legislation that the governor may have chosen to his advantage.
Taylor said the General Assembly has been in charge this year, and the vetoes and defiance are a way to exert authority and independence.
“Maybe he feels the need at this particular time to say, ‘Hey, I’m relevant. I’m important. I have influence, and I don’t always agree with those guys,’ ” Taylor said.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed.