Call it the year of North Carolina’s Big Right Turn. A conservative General Assembly, with a conservative governor in tow, veered away from the moderate consensus that had set the tone of Tar Heel politics for decades. Taxes were cut for high-end earners. Public schools were put through a budget wringer. Anti-pollution rules were weakened, and voting was made less convenient – a change expected to help conservative candidates.
Pushback came in the weekly Moral Monday protests organized by the NAACP and supported by many individuals and groups, including the N.C. Council of Churches, alarmed at the state’s retreat from principles of fairness and sound government.
Outwardly, at least, neither the legislature’s Republican leaders nor Republican Gov. Pat McCrory paid much heed to the protests that drew thousands to Raleigh amid the late spring and early summer heat and led to hundreds of arrests for peaceful civil disobedience.
But as Labor Day came and went, it seemed that even within GOP ranks not everyone was comfortable with how the party’s hard line was playing out.
McCrory decided to veto just two of the dozens of bills sent to him during the legislative session that ended in late July. His objection to one of them was that it softened the rules requiring employers to check the immigration status of temporary workers. Farmers strongly favored the bill. McCrory opted to be the voice of tough immigration enforcement despite the absence of a coherent national policy addressing the needs of employers as well as aspiring citizens.
With the other bill, it was the governor who emerged as the voice of reason. He refused to go along with a requirement that people applying for or receiving state welfare benefits submit to drug testing if they were suspected of using illegal drugs. He made a strong case that such a rule would be ineffective in fighting drug abuse and unfair to families and children who could be hurt if benefits were withheld.
Mount up and override
When legislators convened on the day after Labor Day in response to McCrory’s vetoes, they trumped both of them in short order. On the immigration bill, the totals weren’t close as House and Senate Democrats joined blocs of Republicans in voting to override.
The drug testing bill, however, had a fairly close call in the House. To override a veto takes a three-fifths majority of those present and voting. Of the 120 House members, 116 were on hand, so 70 votes were needed. The House tally was 77-39 – with six Democrats joining all but three Republicans in favor of the bill. If the Democrats had been united, the margin would have shrunk to 71-45.
Of course, if more Republican House members had followed the lead of their colleague Jim Fulghum, McCrory’s veto might have been sustained after all. It was Fulghum – a first-term conservative from Raleigh — who made the strongest case against the bill. It took courage for him to buck his party leadership in remarks on the House floor. But as a physician, Fulghum must have figured he was entitled to weigh in on a matter of health policy.
Bill supporters were frank in acknowledging they wanted to prevent public funds from being used to feed somebody’s drug habit. Fulghum said that safeguards already in place were working as they should and that the drug test rule would end up harming people whom the current system is able to help. Was the doctor making too much sense for legislators who would rather punish than cure? When the vote came, Fulghum, Rick Catlin of Wilmington and Nathan Ramsey of Buncombe County were the only Republicans to back McCrory’s veto.
Rocking the vote
In keeping with Republican priorities across the country, North Carolina’s legislature enacted election law changes clearly intended to hold down the vote among groups seen as more likely to swing Democratic. Those groups include racial minorities, the poor and young people. McCrory embraced the changes, featuring a new requirement for voters to show a photo ID, as antidotes to fraud at the polls – even though fraud has not been shown to be any kind of significant problem.
Legislators mindful of recent Democratic strength among college students made it harder for them to vote by omitting college IDs from the list of IDs acceptable at polling places. Meanwhile, some local elections boards, now under Republican control by virtue of the GOP’s hold on the governorship, also were moving to clamp down on the student vote.
A case that drew national attention arose in Pasquotank County, where the elections board sought to keep an Elizabeth City State University student who lives on campus from running for the city council. It wasn’t hard to see that if Montravias King wasn’t allowed to run for local office because of where he lives, he also wouldn’t be allowed to vote in Pasquotank – and neither would other students in the same boat.
The Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice asked the state Board of Elections to affirm King’s rights. And in its own get-back-to-business session on the day after Labor Day, that’s what the board did.
Notably, the vote was unanimous, as the board’s three Republican members joined with its two Democrats. Court rulings seemed to make it clear that legally, they had little choice. But in the legislature, Republicans weren’t shy about pushing the legal envelope. So this was an instance of cooler heads prevailing.
The governor’s sore nerve
Following the veto overrides, legislative chiefs tried to smooth over their differences with McCrory. They hailed what they said was agreement on the vast majority of enacted bills.
The governor, though, sounded a little fed up. He said his administration wouldn’t enforce the drug testing bill unless more money was provided to pay for it. He also chided legislators for “passing some flawed legislation during the last hours of the session with little debate, understanding or transparency.”
He singled out for criticism a budget provision eliminating extra pay for teachers who in the future earn graduate degrees. Not that he didn’t sign the budget bill into law.
McCrory has taken some heat for appearing to let the General Assembly drive the policy train during his first several months in office. At the same time, he’s caught a goodly share of the grief raised by protesters and others troubled by the state’s rightward lurch.
Perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on the governor that his own political standing might be enhanced if he manages to operate more in the style of moderate Republican predecessors such as Jim Martin and the late Jim Holshouser. He could broaden his appeal while also helping steer North Carolina’s government back toward a more sensible, effective and compassionate course.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate