The legislative session ended much as it began, with the Republican legislature and the Democratic governor locked in a disagreement.
The 2017 regular session of the N.C. General Assembly was dominated by vetoes, veto overrides and court hearings in lawsuits Gov. Roy Cooper brought to fight legislative attempts to dilute his powers.
State lawmakers ended the session early Friday morning after more than five months, capped by a busy last week that included overriding Cooper’s budget veto. They are due to return for multiple special sessions, starting with one in August that is bound to involve more veto overrides.
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In March, Cooper and legislative Republicans reached an agreement to roll back House Bill 2, what became known as the “bathroom bill,” or HB2. The agreement came after months of negotiations surrounded by tough talk, dueling legislative press conferences and charges of bad faith on both sides. The compromise includes a new version of HB2’s restrictions on anti-discrimination ordinances in cities and counties.
“With the exception of mainly the budget and the HB2 dance, the focus has been on the separation of powers conflicts and the push back and forth on executive and legislative power,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. Part of the fight is over the ability to control the judiciary, Taylor said.
In anticipation of a Cooper governorship, the legislature met in special session to merge the state elections and ethics boards and remove Cooper’s ability to create a Democratic majority on the State Board of Elections. It passed a law requiring Senate confirmation of his Cabinet appointees and reduced the number of political employees who are exempt from state personnel protections. By the time the legislature returned for its regular session in January, Cooper had sued over those changes.
State lawmakers continued to jab at Cooper, approving a bill in April over his veto to reduce the N.C. Court of Appeals from 15 to 12 judges in a move that would prevent Cooper from replacing retiring judges. Cooper sued again.
In all, Cooper vetoed five bills in his first session. Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the state House and Senate, easily turned back those vetoes to enact the laws they wanted. A sixth veto came Friday evening on an environmental bill.
State lawmakers are used to at times butting heads with a governor – Cooper’s Republican predecessor, Pat McCrory, issued two vetoes in his first year, both overridden – but the election of a Democrat and the return of divided government to North Carolina have sharpened that conflict.
Cooper was not available to talk about the session, his spokesman said.
Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, who leads Senate Democrats, said Cooper is fighting hard for his ideas because he saw the legislature battle McCrory and push aside former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who had a Republican legislature in her last two years of office.
“That’s one of the reasons he is so aggressive in his defense of the power of the governor and is willing to veto,” Blue said. “That’s why he doesn’t mind having open debate with the leadership. He wants them to know what his ideas are of the state’s priorities.”
Cooper and the legislature’s priorities conflicted most prominently over spending. Announcing his budget veto this week, Cooper called the legislature’s plan “shortsighted and small-minded” and wanted changes he said would “reflect more of the vision our state demands.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said the state is excelling under the GOP’s vision, noting a steep drop in the unemployment rate, lower taxes and a higher high-school graduation rate.
“Our vision is North Carolina as, really, a beacon for the rest of the nation not only in tax policy and economic environment, but also as a place where a top-level quality of life can be experienced,” Berger said. “If you look at the body of work this legislature has accomplished in the last six years, I don’t think you can walk away saying there is no vision there.”
The legislature took another step in its multi-year plan to raise teacher pay, Berger said, and expanded the state job recruitment program to help land major employers.
Under the state constitution, the governor is weaker than the legislature. Governors don’t have a line-item veto that would allow them to strike out only the parts of a bill they don’t like. They have no say in how legislative districts are drawn.
“When our state was founded, it was founded with a very strong legislative branch,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican. Legislative conflicts with Cooper are “not a partisan thing,” he said, but “a healthy competition among the branches.”
The competition has now enveloped the judicial branch, which has become the target of the heated rhetoric usually reserved for the legislature and the governor.
In response to a decision that Berger and Moore didn’t like by a panel of three Superior Court judges, the two leaders sent out an email with the headline “Legislative leaders to activist judges: If you want to make laws, run for the legislature.”
The state’s judicial branch has never before been this involved in political disputes, said David McLennan, a Meredith College political science professor.
“We’ve seen constitutional issues around the governor’s power to a point that we have never seen in North Carolina history,” he said. “The courts have gotten involved to a degree they have never been, in terms of disputes between the legislative and executive branches. I don’t see any end in sight.”