Reform or revenge? McCrory signs bill limiting successor's authority in North Carolina

Depending on one’s perspective, either North Carolina Republicans are sore losers, or they are restoring important legislative checks on executive authority after decades of neglect. It very well might be both. The GOP-dominated legislature plans to greet new Democratic governor Roy Cooper with a series of laws that reduce his authority and expand the influence of the state Senate on executive appointments. To put it mildly, Democrats are questioning the timing:

North Carolina Republican lawmakers facing the reality of a new Democratic governor in two weeks are nearly done taking steps to reduce his power despite angry demonstrations and threats of litigation, even from the governor-elect.

Aiming to wrap up an extraordinary special session, the GOP-controlled legislature prepared Friday to complete work on bills that would place checks upon Democrat Roy Cooper, who edged Republican incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory by just over 10,000 votes last month.

Legislation that already cleared one chamber scales back the team Cooper can bring into office, requires the Senate’s approval for top administrators at state agencies and erases the governor’s ability to shape elections boards statewide.

This afternoon, McCrory signed one bill into law, while another one remains pending:

The bill McCrory signed will limit the governor’s power to make appointments to certain state boards including the Board of Elections.

It would create state and county boards of elections with equal numbers of Democratic and Republican members. Until now, the governor appointed three of the five members of the state Board of Elections, and county boards were made up of two members of the governor’s party and one member of the other party. …

McCrory has not said whether he will sign another bill that would require Senate confirmation of the governor’s Cabinet. The bill, which also removes the governor’s ability to appoint members to the University of North Carolina system’s board of trustees, awaits final action in the state House before it reaches McCrory’s desk.

As the legislature debated the bills in special session, dozens of protesters appeared in both chambers, which had to be cleared. It’s a bit reminiscent of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin almost six years ago, except that the North Carolina protesters were better behaved:

Let’s look at the changes themselves outside of the context of the election first. They seem defensible, if not sensible, in most cases. The Senate wants to reassert its authority to confirm appointments to executive-branch offices, a process we use at the national level as a check on executive authority. The change to voting boards would end the practice of allowing the governor’s party to dominate them in favor of an even partisan split at all times. (However, the plan to have Republicans control the chair in even-numbered years — election years — is a baldfaced power grab.) Getting rid of a thousand patronage jobs seems like a very good idea, at least if one prefers the civil-service approach that Democrats usually favor. Allowing more checks on executive power boosts the people’s branch of government and allows for much more accountability.

On the other hand, the timing lends itself to the conclusion that the Republican legislature wants to maximize its authority just in time to deal with a Democratic governor. If these are good ideas, why didn’t Republicans propose these bills in regular session with McCrory as governor? They would have been much less controversial — in fact, it would have cast them in an entirely positive, reformist light. That might have even helped McCrory in the past election overcome the lingering resentment over the HB2 bathroom bill. Calling an unscheduled special session after losing the gubernatorial election to rush these into law makes it look like retribution instead of reform.

Republicans in North Carolina might be digging their own grave. This is not a deep-red state with a fluky outcome in the gubernatorial election, but a state that has been transitioning into purple status thanks mostly to an influx of college students and high-tech workers from bluer states. They’re taking a risk here that may pay off in the short run of their next legislative session, but could backfire when voters get a chance to provide their own version of accountability. Voters picked Cooper over McCrory, and they may not be terribly happy to see Republicans exact revenge on their choice.

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David Strom 12:01 PM on October 07, 2022