Rob Christensen

NC governors, already among weakest in US, are on their way to becoming potted plants

North Carolina’s governors are on their way to becoming a potted plant.

The Tar Heel State has long had one of the constitutionally weakest governors in the country. If California had muscle-man Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, the appropriate actors to audition for North Carolina governor might be Pee Wee Herman, Sheldon Cooper, or Woody Allen.

And North Carolina governors have had a lot of sand kicked in their faces recently. Democrats Roy Cooper and Bev Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory have been treated only slightly better than legislative pages by the GOP mandarins who controlled the General Assembly during the past decade.

North Carolina’s governors are among the five weakest in the country, according to John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political science professor.

But for North Carolina’s legislature, the governor wasn’t weak enough. Since taking power at the beginning of the decade, GOP lawmakers have taken a chain saw to the governor’s powers every chance they get.

Capsulizing the legislature’s disdain for governors was the moment they shot down then-First Lady Ann McCrory’s proposal to curb puppy mills in 2013. They ridiculed proposals to require breeders of a certain size to provide exercise and use humane methods for euthanasia. “Exercise on a daily basis – if I kick him across the floor, is that daily exercise?” asked Rep. Michael Speciale. “’Euthanasia performed humanely’ – so should I choose the ax or the baseball bat?”

If that is how they treated a Republican governor, you could only imagine how they treat a Democratic governor.

Shortly before Cooper took office, the GOP leaders called a special legislative session which slashed the governor’s appointments from 1500 to 300; required legislative confirmation of the governor’s Cabinet; and took away the governor’s power to appoint trustees to the campuses of the University of North Carolina system.

It turns out, the GOP lawmakers were just getting warmed up.

Now the legislature wants voters in November to pass two constitutional amendments that would further weaken the governor. One amendment would put the election machinery in the hands of the legislature by giving lawmakers control over who serves on the election board. Another would give the legislature a major role in filling judicial vacancies, increasing their power over the courts, which have been routinely ruling the legislature’s power grabs as illegal.

The five living former governors – three Democrats and two Republicans – have called for the amendments’ defeat. The state’s six former N.C. Supreme Court justices – four Democrats and two Republicans – are also urging voters to reject them.

“He’d be a nice figurehead, which is what the General Assembly wants,” former Gov. Jim Martin told the Charlotte Observer. “They’d be happy to have governor who would go around making speeches, cutting ribbons, staying out of their way.”

Every independent scholar who has examined North Carolina’s governorship over the years has concluded it is among the weakest in the country. To be successful, past North Carolina governors have had to use soft power — the bully pulpit or appealing to party loyalty of lawmakers.

Until 1996, North Carolina was the only state where the governor had no veto — and then the legislature gave him thin-soup veto. The governor has no line-item veto by which he can strike a single item from a bill; no pocket veto in which a bill fails if he doesn’t sign it; nor a reduction veto by which a governor can delete a budget item. Tar Heel governors can’t veto redistricting bills or constitutional amendments.

Until the 1980’s, governors couldn’t seek re-election. They now can serve two terms, but there are no term limits on lawmakers. Senate leader Phil Berger has been the most powerful man in Raleigh since 2011, essentially telling three governors what to do.

Unlike in many states, North Carolina’s governor must share executive power with eight other independently elected members of the Council of State who are responsible for things such as schools, insurance, agriculture, and labor regulations.

Few things symbolize the lack of balance in North Carolina more than their work spaces. North Carolina is one of only three states where the legislature has its own building; elsewhere, lawmakers often share space with the governor. In fact, North Carolina’s legislature has not one, but two buildings.

Which is why legislative expert Gerry Cohen recently remarked that if the constitutional amendments pass, North Carolina will have its weakest governor since 1838 when Tar Heel lawmakers were still spooked by British colonial governors. That, of course, would not bother the legislature one whit.