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Veto: What difference has it made?

Making history took about nine minutes. The vote by legislators to override Gov. Mike Easley's veto of a new state law opening state roads to wider boat trailers was the first defeat of a governor's veto in state history, and one meted out in less time than it takes to cook a pizza.

Easley was the first North Carolina governor to use the veto -- the authority to reject legislation approved by the General Assembly. During his two terms, he has given the first demonstrations of the difference the new constitutional power can make in the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of North Carolina's government.

In all, Easley vetoed nine bills and likely will leave office with a score of Easley 8, General Assembly 1. He has wielded the veto sparingly and usually on low-profile legislation, using the constitutional tool more as a safety net than as the shotgun behind the door.

The veto is often portrayed as the governor's weapon in titanic clashes with lawmakers. Easley, though, has pulled the veto stamp out of his desk more to catch minor legislation he sees as dangerously flawed. He then negotiates a way to rework it.

But the veto hasn't been rigorously tested. Not until the governor and legislature come from different parties, or from different wings of the same party, will you witness the sort of tension between the branches of government that will measure the strength of the veto.

Easley's nine vetoes included bills awarding financial incentives to Goodyear, altering requirements for teacher certification and appointing new board and commission members -- two of whom were dead and five of whom were blocked by law from taking office.

"It serves as a last defense against bad law," said Franklin Freeman, Easley's legislative liaison.

Easley sees the veto largely as a pause button, a way to get the legislature to take the time to reconsider something they've passed.

He doesn't veto legislation just because he doesn't like it.

"I've signed plenty of bills I disagreed with," Easley said.

He uses the veto to stop what he views as harmful to the state or its people. He blocked then-House Speaker Jim Black, a Charlotte Democrat, and other legislators from giving a vacant state office building in downtown Charlotte to Johnson & Wales University. The gift was intended to satisfy a promised tax incentive that helped lure the school to Charlotte.

"Sometimes a governor has to say 'This is bad policy and I just can't put my name on it'," he said.

In the Johnson & Wales case, Easley went further than a veto. He then sold the building before legislators could give it away.

The teacher certification bill allowed schools to hire out-of-state teachers without passing certain tests as long as their home state rated them as "highly qualified." Easley said that change would have "lowered our standards to the lowest in the country."

'Just a waste of time'?

Some legislators say Easley has picked disagreements over small matters, at least some of which could have been avoided by working out the problem before the bill passed. Most of the vetoes came during the usual cascade of legislation at the end of a session when it's difficult for even lawmakers to know what is in the bills.

Easley has portrayed his objections as issues of principle. In some cases, however, his administration has fashioned a compromise that differed little from the bill he vetoed. After he vetoed the teachers bill, he still agreed to let schools hire out-of-state teachers under a temporary teaching license.

That's much different, Easley said, than immediately certifying out-of-state teachers.

He vetoed the incentive package for Goodyear Tire & Rubber's Fayetteville plant in part because it set the precedent of awarding incentives to companies already operating in the state instead of those who are creating jobs by expanding or moving into the state. The compromise he reached included worker protections but gave incentives to both Goodyear and its competitor, Bridgestone Firestone's Wilson plant, raising the cost of the bill from about $40 million to $60 million.

Easley said the compromise injected fairness into the tax breaks, ensuring that any company that qualified could receive funding.

"What he has vetoed I don't think has had any profound effect on the law," said Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat. "We just gave him a little of what he wanted, to save face. We could have beat him [with an override]."

The technical nature of Easley's vetoes grew partly out of Easley's distant but not contentious relationship with the legislature, said John Sanders, former director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Institute of Government and a co-author of the current state constitution.

"While he's not the legislature's playmate, he's not been in an antagonistic posture with the legislature," Sanders said. "There might have been more vetoes on issues of weighty consequences" with a more combative governor.

Basnight suggested Easley's use of the veto has set a minimalist benchmark.

"I don't believe it has changed government," Basnight said. "It's just a waste of time when you veto something like this."

Basnight was referring to Easley's veto of the bill relaxing regulations on transporting wide boats, which the legislature overrode last week.

A long-sought power

Until the 1970's, North Carolina's governors could serve only one term and had no veto. They were never guaranteed a seat at the negotiating table. They could only try to influence legislation.

"North Carolina through the years had often been cited as having the weakest governor in America," said former Gov. Jim Hunt. "That means the governor was not as effective in leading the state, getting things done for people, as he needed to be."

During Hunt's first term as governor in the late '70s, he pushed through legislation to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment allowing governors to run for a second term, and the voters approved it. He became the first governor to be re-elected.

Republican Jim Martin succeeded Hunt in 1985 and faced a Democratic legislature.

Democratic legislative leaders twice approached Martin during his tenure with a deal to create veto power. In one instance, they wanted him to help foil a bipartisan coup against then-House Speaker Liston Ramsey, and Martin refused. During his second term, they offered to create veto power for future governors but not for Martin. He declined.

"At the time, I let my ego get into it," Martin said. "It would have been better to accept."

In 1992, Hunt returned for another two terms as governor, during which he nudged the legislature to hold a public vote on a constitutional amendment to create the veto, which passed.

"Some legislators -- some kiddingly and some not so kiddingly -- have said we shouldn't have done it," said Freeman, Easley's legislative liaison. He was Hunt's chief of staff when the veto went into effect.

When the legislation setting up veto procedures reached Hunt's desk in 1997, it was the first time a North Carolina governor had signed a bill since before the American Revolution.

Hunt threatened to use the veto but never did.

"Which illustrates one of the significant factors about the veto," Martin said. "When you have it, you don't have to use it as much. The threat is there, you have bargaining power."

Constraints and caveats

Lawmakers specifically limited the veto's power when they created it, including giving themselves the ability to override with a three-fifths majority, less than the two-thirds majority required in the U.S. Congress.

"I don't believe it's a real powerful tool," Basnight said. "It has its negatives."

Easley's vetoes are rare compared to other states. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, not only can veto bills but also can veto individual spending items in the state budget -- a line-item veto. Last year he issued 243 line-item vetoes. The legislature overrode all but 15.

The danger of veto battles, Easley said, is that they quickly are cast as a duel between two branches of government.

"I don't want it to get to be about me, legislative versus executive. I want it to be about the people. And I have respect for the legislative process," Easley said. "I try not to jam them or get in their face with a lot of public criticism."

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