Politics & Government

McCrory vetoes workplace bill

About fifty protestors don blindfolds and gags as they gather at the N.C. Capitol in Raleigh to protest an Ag-Gag bill that would make it more difficult to report cases of animal mistreatment in this May 27, 2015, file photo.
About fifty protestors don blindfolds and gags as they gather at the N.C. Capitol in Raleigh to protest an Ag-Gag bill that would make it more difficult to report cases of animal mistreatment in this May 27, 2015, file photo. cseward@newsobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday vetoed a bill aimed at punishing people who take jobs in order to expose unsafe or inhumane conditions or to steal from their employers. He said it didn’t do enough to protect legitimate whistleblowers.

It was the governor’s second veto in two days, following his rejection Thursday of a bill allowing magistrates to avoid marrying same-sex couples.

House Bill 405, the Property Protection Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, and comfortably in the Senate – meaning legislators likely have the votes to override McCrory’s veto.

The governor has taken a more strident tone toward the General Assembly this week, as he ramps up pressure on legislators to put his bond referendums for road and building improvements on the ballot, and now with these vetoes.

On Friday, McCrory told a group of business representatives that more vetoes are coming. His office did not respond to a request to provide details about what bills that might include.

The bill vetoed Friday would create a recourse in civil court for business owners to sue employees who use their positions to secretly take photographs or shoot video in their workplace. It could also be used to sue workers who steal data, documents or merchandise; it is aimed at small-time thieves and corporate spies.

Employers could sue for punitive damages of $5,000 a day in addition to compensation for actual damages.

Much of the focus of the bill has been on its so-called “ag-gag” effect, which refers to laws intended to muzzle private undercover investigations by animal welfare groups, reporters or others. Several of the country’s leading animal welfare organizations fought to defeat the bill and then to encourage a veto, including a $50,000 TV ad campaign by the Humane Society of the United States.

Nursing home abuses

After two previous agriculture-focused bills failed in recent years, the bill was broadened to extend to any business. That attracted attention from the AARP, which said nursing home workers could be sued for documenting abuse, and from a national labor group.

That’s also what prompted McCrory to veto the legislation. The governor, in a veto statement, said businesses have a valid concern about unethical behavior of those they hire, particularly the agricultural industry.

“While I support the purpose of this bill, I believe it does not adequately protect or give clear guidance to honest employees who uncover criminal activity,” McCrory said. “I am concerned that subjecting these employees to potential civil penalties will create an environment that discourages them from reporting illegal activities.”

McCrory said it would have been incongruous for him to allow this bill to become law after he signed legislation increasing the penalty for group home workers who fail to report sex abuse of patients.

“In good conscience, I cannot sign Burt’s Law and then in the same week turn around and sign contradictory legislation,” McCrory said.

McCrory encouraged the legislature to take up House Bill 405 again soon and rewrite it to add protections.

N.C. Chamber lobbyist Gary Salamedo said his organization was disappointed, and thinks opponents “grossly misrepresented” what the bill would do.

“We respectfully disagree with the governor’s decision to veto the bill because North Carolina employers need stronger measures to protect private property,” Salamedo said.

The bill would discourage employees stealing patient records, financial information, consumer data, merchandise and patents, for example, he said.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, released this statement:

“We applaud Gov. McCrory for standing up for the principles of promoting transparency and rooting out cruelty, whether to animals or to veterans or to senior citizens. The Humane Society of the United States thanks him for vetoing this overreaching and dangerous bill, which was more about covering up bad actors than anything else.”

National groups including Compassion Over Killing, which last month released a video of what it says is abuse at a chicken slaughterhouse in Robeson County, and Mercy for Animals, which says it has conducted five undercover investigations in North Carolina, joined the campaign against the bill.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Autryville who is also a farmer, vowed to do all that he can to make sure the bill becomes law.

“I am extremely disappointed in Gov. McCrory’s decision to veto a bill that defends private property rights and puts teeth into our trespass laws – and one that received broad, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate,” Jackson said in a statement.

‘Two other vetoes’

The bill passed the House in April by a vote of 99-19. Three-fifths of those present are needed to override. House and Senate leaders are discussing how to handle this veto as well as the governor’s veto of the magistrates bill.

There could be more vetoes to come. McCrory on Friday spoke to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina board in Raleigh to promote his bonds. A writer for liberal advocacy group N.C. Policy Watch attended the meeting and recordedthe governor’s remarks.

At one point, the governor said that there is public support for his bonds, but that “may change after yesterday’s veto and today’s veto and two other vetoes coming up. And I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I’m going to do what’s right.”

Chris Sinclair, a Republican campaign strategist who has worked for McCrory, said it isn’t unusual that the governor and legislature disagree on some issues. Sometimes the differences are simply the result of their different roles, he said.

“He’s looking at what’s in the best interests of the entire state,” Sinclair said. “He doesn’t represent a district. He has said, ‘I’m going to make sure whatever laws we pass are in the best interests of the people of North Carolina. If I don’t think they’re in the best interests of the entire state, then I will veto.’”

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Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO