Anticipation of an unpleasant event – gallows humorists usually cite the prospect of being hanged – is said to concentrate the mind. Although 17 months will pass before North Carolina voters decide whether Gov. Pat McCrory has earned a second term, the possibility that he might be sent back home to Charlotte must be starting to weigh on him. His mind is starting to concentrate.
Consider the governor’s two recent vetoes – in each case, tangling publicly with the General Assembly’s chiefs in a way that he’s typically been reluctant to do. And the issues go well beyond technical squabbles over appointive powers and the like.
It’s probably fair to say that each vetoed bill has legislative backers ready to fight to the last ditch over what they and their supporters see as core matters of principle. So McCrory has poked them in some tender spots.
Is he acting in keeping with his own core beliefs? Is he trying to reaffirm his appeal to voters in the center of the political spectrum? Or is he just trying to show, contrary to much of the criticism that’s come his way, that he indeed has a backbone?
The conjecture would have to be, some of each. And there’s nothing at all wrong with a politician striking something that resembles a profile in courage because he thinks it will help him at the polls.
With these vetoes – one involving the duties of magistrates who perform marriages, the other focusing on workplace whistleblowers – McCrory signals that he’s tired of being typecast as a virtual errand boy for the hard-shell Republican conservatives who have run the legislative show since 2011. Since he took office in 2013, his priorities have often been shuffled aside, and the moderate reputation he gained during long service as the Republican mayor of Charlotte has suffered.
Now, he finds common ground with many voters whom he has managed to disappoint.
Supporters of same-sex marriage rights are cheered by McCrory’s insistence that magistrates, as public officials, should carry out their duties without being able to discriminate. Animal welfare advocates like his opposition to a bill allowing employers to sue workers who have documented wrongful conduct. Certainly folks aligned with the Council of Churches, where centrists and progressives both are at home, applaud the governor’s veto moves.
Senate Bill 2, a favorite cause of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden, would let magistrates and registers of deeds opt out of performing same-sex marriages on the grounds of “sincerely held religious objection.”
McCrory said in his May 28 veto message, “I recognize that for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, we are a nation and a state of laws. … No public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath.”
That’s the proper take on this issue. To let public officials decide which duties to perform would be a slippery slope towards all sorts of unfair, discriminatory treatment on the basis of views that couldn’t be challenged, no matter how bizarre.
Holding employers accountable
House Bill 405 has been pushed by powerful agribusiness interests and their allies who resent having to acknowledge the atrocious conditions that can occur at the state’s factory farms and slaughterhouses. Animal rights advocates have gotten themselves hired and then shot video of hogs, chickens and turkeys being treated inhumanely. Under the bill, those activists could be sued – as could workforce whistleblowers in other fields such as the nursing home industry.
McCrory gave more ground than he needed to when he said he supported the bill’s crackdown on “bad actors” engaged in undercover investigations. But he was on target in saying that the bill “does not adequately protect or give clear guidance to honest employees who uncover criminal activity.” Perhaps he ended up taking his cue from the AARP, which came out strongly in opposition because of its concerns about elder abuse. If that’s what happened, smart move.
Now the practical question: Will either of the vetoes be overridden? The bar for an override is relatively low – three-fifths of those present and voting in both the House and the Senate.
S.B. 2 passed the Senate by a mostly party-line vote of 32-16, indicating that an override would be easy to attain if Sen. Berger presses the issue.
The final House vote, however, was 67-43. Ten members didn’t vote. If all 120 House members took part in an override vote, then 72 would have to favor an override for it to succeed — meaning the supporters would have to pick up five more votes if no positions changed. This looks as though it would be close.
An override of H.B. 405 should be smooth sailing if legislative leaders want it to happen. The final margin in the Senate was 32-13, and the House voted 99-19.
Still, McCrory struck a conciliatory note, saying he was optimistic that some revisions to the bill would address employers’ concerns while “protecting honest employees.” Unless legislators simply feel like showing the governor who’s boss, they presumably could come up with some tweaks that would mollify the AARP and that he’d feel obliged to accept. No override would be needed.
Another tough call
These were just McCrory’s third and fourth vetoes, but he suggested in a May 29 appearance before an economic development group that others may be in the offing. Does that signal his intent to veto the next big hot-button bill on the legislative scope – House Bill 465, the latest move by social conservatives to impede access to abortion?
The bill won’t land on the governor’s desk until the House and Senate resolve some conflicting language. If and when it does, it would put him in a tight spot, given his campaign pledge not to support further abortion restrictions.
But what might really concentrate his mind would be the prospect of alienating all those voters who, even if they believe abortion is something to be avoided whenever possible, also believe that it is a right to be protected for those women who feel they need it.