The lame-duck North Carolina legislature’s is engaging in a last-minute effort to weaken the office of the governor before Democrat Roy Cooper.
Here’s one thing they are doing.
Back in 2013, this same legislature dramatically increased the number of what are technically called “exempt positions” under the governor, giving newly elected Republican Gov. Pat McCrory significant new patronage power. The number of political appointees authorized for McCrory exploded from about 500 to 1,500.
Now a new bill introduced in the surprise special session, called yesterday with about two hours notice, cuts the number of political appointees for Cooper from 1,500 down to 300, even fewer than McCrory originally started with.
Let that sink in. And it’s not just political appointees being taken away from Cooper. The lame-duck GOP legislature scheming with the defeated lame-duck GOP governor to handcuff the new Democratic governor on everything from the courts to the elections boards to higher education.
It’s a power grab of epic proportions.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis (Republican) was frank that some of the appointment and election board changes were prompted by Cooper’s election.
“Some of the stuff we’re doing, obviously if the election results were different, we might not be moving quite as fast on, but a lot of this stuff would have been done anyway and has been talked about for quite some time,” he said.
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall of Durham said Republicans were trying to “nullify the vote of the people” in electing Cooper, who defeated McCrory last month.
It’s both breathtaking and hardly surprising.
With a scope never before seen in North Carolina politics – and with an all-too-familiar disrespect for democracy – Republicans in Raleigh are engaging in a stunning reach for power this week.
They want to change the ideological makeup of election boards. They want to make it more difficult for court challenges to get to a Democrat-friendly Supreme Court. They want to limit the number of appointees Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will be able to make. They want approval authority over some of those appointees.
It is an arrogant display of muscle-flexing, and Republicans weren’t shy about the goal. Legislators, said House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, wanted “to establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state.”
In other words: We’re in control. We want more control. We’ll do what we want to get it.
You might recognize that sentiment. It was what Democrats expressed in 1977 after the Democrat-led General Assembly passed legislation that allowed new Gov. Jim Hunt to fire all employees hired in the previous five years by his Republican predecessor. Said Joe Pell, then special assistant to Hunt: “The game of politics, as far as I know, is still played on the basis of ‘to the victor belongs the spoils.’”
That 1977 power grab was much smaller than what Republicans have attempted this week. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now, not only because it weakens the other branches of state government, but because it subverts the will of voters who elected Cooper and a Democrat Supreme Court justice to be a check on the Republican legislature.
The 1977 statute also was unconstitutional, and judges struck it down. You can expect this week’s measures to also head straight to the courts, a place where N.C. Republicans have regularly been reminded of the limits of their power.
There’s someone else, however, who can do that first. Gov. Pat McCrory is a lame duck now, which means he has one more opportunity to stand up to the extremists in his party. He also has little to lose, which means he can be the governor many had hoped for all along – one who was willing to do what’s right for North Carolina, not just what’s good for Republicans.
We’ve seen more glimpses of that McCrory lately. His response to Hurricane Matthew and its aftermath was both strong and compassionate. He was the leader the state needed, including this week in following through on relief so many North Carolinians desperately need.
Now North Carolina needs McCrory to lead again. He knows that limiting the next governor’s power, as Republicans are attempting this week, is wrong. As governor, he fought the legislature’s attempt to steal his appointing authority to key N.C. commissions, eventually winning in the N.C. Supreme Court earlier this year. He should veto all new attempts to weaken the office he’s about to leave.
Will doing so change McCrory’s legacy? Probably not. And any veto he makes might fall in an override vote – a fear that’s caused McCrory to bow to Republicans in the past.
But North Carolina has learned plenty these last four years the damage that can be done when one party – any party – accumulates too much power. That’s been on display once again this week, perhaps more brazenly, and dangerously, than ever.
People have noticed, fortunately.
— Patsy Sibley (@PatsySibley) December 15, 2016
Incoming governor Roy Cooper warns that the substance of these bills are horrible:
“Most people might think this is a partisan power grab, but it’s really more ominous,” Cooper said at a news conference.
House Bill 17, which was introduced Wednesday night and was moving through committees on Thursday, does the following:
- It reduces the number of exempt positions under Cooper’s supervision from 1,500 to 300. Exempt positions are those that a governor can hire or fire at will, either because they are managers or because their job is somewhat political in nature. Although former Gov. Bev Perdue had roughly 500 such positions under her control, GOP lawmakers gave Gov. Pat McCrory 1,500 to work with.
- It removes gubernatorial appointments to the various boards of trustees that run each campus in the University of North Carolina system. Those appointments would be would be transferred to the General Assembly.
- It requires Senate confirmation for gubernatorial cabinet appointments. Although the state constitution allows this, the legislature hasn’t exercised this power in recent memory.
Cooper said the proposal “is really about hurting public education, working families, state employees, health care and clean air and water.”
Putting the legislative thumb on his appointments for the Revenue and Commerce departments would encourages more corporate tax cuts and loopholes, he said. Likewise, renewable energy efforts and rules for clean air and water would be hurt by requiring Senate approval of the environmental secretary, he said.
“We don’t look great to the people of North Carolina or to the rest of the country when laws are passed hastily with little discussion in the middle of the night,” he said.
He cited House Bill 2, the law limiting LGBT rights that lawmakers passed in a one-day emergency session in March, as an example of the damage created by last-minute legislating. Business expansions, concerts, athletic events and conventions have been moved out of North Carolina as a result of the law.
“I will use all of our tools … to lead this state in the right direction,” Cooper said, including possible litigation to overturn legislation.
“If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they will see me in court – and they don’t have a very good track record there,” he said.
This last-minute legislation is a Republican tactic, one of many seen around the country, where the GOP tries to gain political control through means other than popular vote (gerrymandering being another). Forget about winning over people by the strength of your ideas with these guys.