The ugly truth can’t be evaded or denied: North Carolina’s General Assembly, in the grip of an arrogant Republican majority, has plunged ahead with a shocking, shameful abuse of power and of the principles of open, accountable government.
Yes, this is a matter of vital concern to the N.C. Council of Churches. That’s because the agenda these legislative bullies are pushing – with their desperate efforts to marginalize Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper – runs counter to so many of the Council’s core values.
Republican legislators who have staged a surprise special session to limit Cooper’s influence by changing some of state government’s basic rules of operation have already proved hostile to equal voting rights. Hostile to public education. Hostile to adequate health care for the poor, careful protection of the environment and an equitable tax system.
Now, facing resistance from an incoming governor who understands the damage they’ve already done during their six years of control, power-addicted bosses of the state House and Senate seek to undermine the governor’s authority and hamstring his ability to lead.
If they get away with it, Cooper surely won’t abandon the policies he believes in – policies properly grounded in the recognition that our state and our communities are only as strong as their weakest links.
But his leadership tools will have been blunted by self-serving hypocrites who were mostly content to leave Republican Gov. Pat McCrory with those same tools. (Not that McCrory, himself under the legislature’s thumb in many respects, put them to very good use.)
In what amounts to a spasm of partisan vindictiveness, GOP legislators not only have moved to put Cooper in a managerial box, but with a bill originating in the Senate they also want to meddle with the state’s election oversight agency and its appellate courts.
It was the State Board of Elections and its county-level affiliates – by law under Republican control because that’s the governor’s party – that sealed Cooper’s narrow victory in the Nov. 8 election with findings that McCrory’s multiple complaints of voter fraud and other irregularities were basically nonsense. The various boards looked at the evidence and acted in a commendable spirit of bipartisan objectivity.
But legislators apparently can’t abide the thought of election boards with Democratic majorities, as they would be with Cooper in office and with no changes in the law. So the boards would be restructured so as to be evenly split between the two major parties.
The legislature as well as the governor would make appointments to the state board, which also would become responsible for enforcement of state government ethics rules – an awkward and unwieldy fit. Even if there were cogent arguments for such changes, the fact that they’re being pushed only after Cooper’s win – and in a rushed special session with precious little chance for review and debate – shows both bad judgment and bad faith.
The same verdict has to apply to changes in how the courts hear challenges to laws’ constitutionality. Because Democrat Mike Morgan won a pivotal seat on the state Supreme Court, Democrats will have a 4-3 edge on the nominally nonpartisan court. That could mean a more sympathetic ear toward lawsuits claiming, for example, voter suppression and racial gerrymandering of election districts.
Now, such suits proceed from the trial level straight to the high court. Legislators want to require an intermediate stop at the Court of Appeals – where Republican judges will hold a clear majority.
The appeals court currently sits in three-member panels. But in a case raising constitutional questions, the full 15-member court would be given a chance to rule. Only then could the Supreme Court come into play.
Perhaps the eventual outcome would be the same, even if the appeals court decided in the legislature’s favor, but the plaintiffs would have to go to additional time and expense and wait longer for any relief. The scales of justice would be tilted to serve partisan ends, and the voters who chose Morgan over incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds would just have to suck it up.
North Carolina’s governor already ranks toward the back of the national pack in terms of his formal powers. For instance, he or she doesn’t control several major departments whose heads comprise the Council of State. Those officials, including the attorney general, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction among others, are elected independently.
The governor’s role as chief executive does put him in charge of the various cabinet-level departments including Health and Human Services, Transportation, Public Safety, Environmental Quality and Revenue. Even with the legislature in Republican hands, Cooper’s choices to head those departments could help him smooth some of the rough policy edges adopted under McCrory.
But legislators want to put a constraint on Cooper that no other governor, at least in modern times, has faced. A House bill would make his cabinet heads subject to state Senate “advice and consent.” In other words it would let senators, on a majority vote, block any of Cooper’s picks.
On its face, perhaps this isn’t too onerous. At the national level, presidents traditionally were given leeway to choose their top subordinates, with the Senate acting as a kind of check valve for quality control.
But with the rise of hyper-partisanship in Washington, the advice and consent process has been abused by the U.S. Senate’s Republican majority. Obstruction of President Obama’s nominees, especially to federal judgeships, has become the norm. Who’s to say the same virus of obstructionism wouldn’t spread to the Senate in Raleigh? The signs aren’t encouraging.
The process easily could lead to unnecessary delay as Cooper tries to get his administration up and running. There’s simply no demonstrated need for prospective cabinet officers to undergo this kind of review – at least, there hasn’t been until now, no matter who was governor or which party had control of the Senate. When the voters tapped Cooper, it was with the understanding that he’d pick his top aides. To deny him that prerogative would be to strike a blow way beneath the partisan belt.
Adding insult to injury, the same bill would limit the governor’s political appointees – people not subject to civil service protections – to 300. McCrory has had 1,500 such jobs as it disposal. And any of those employees who’d been on the payroll for at least 12 straight months couldn’t be fired by Cooper even if they were political hires. So hundreds of people hired largely because of their Republican credentials could burrow in to the state bureaucracy even under a Democratic governor, further eroding the governor’s influence.
Beyond storms, more damage
McCrory summoned the General Assembly to Raleigh to enact an aid package for communities hit by the floods of Hurricane Matthew and the recent wildfires in the mountains. But the door was opened for any post-election mischief that lawmakers wanted to cook up. With storm relief taken care of, they convened a separate session on Dec. 14 with zero advance notice and zero disclosure as to what would be considered.
Democrats complained, but as usual Republicans brushed those complaints aside. Not only are they out to punish Cooper, they’re also still nursing grievances from past partisan bruisings inflicted when Democrats were in control. The stripping of the lieutenant governor’s powers after Republican Jim Gardner was elected in 1988 is their favorite talking point.
It’s a point that perhaps should be taken, even if the offense (if that’s what it was) occurred almost three decades ago. But it’s also a sorry excuse to engage in the same kind of behavior the Republicans objected to back then.
What’s even worse is that legislative leaders – Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore chief among them – expect the whole portfolio of changes to be introduced, considered and enacted in the space of 48 hours or so.
There will be no realistic chance to weigh unintended consequences – such as the effect on the courts’ workload and workflow. Republican legislators simply are intended to do what their masters tell them to do by way of frustrating the intent of voters who opted for a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority on the Supreme Court.
How McCrory views this fiasco hasn’t been reported. But he has a chance to leave office at the end of this month on a positive note if he stands up for the prerogatives of the governor and the executive branch. That could mean a last flourish with his veto stamp.
Perhaps any such flourish would come to naught, since Republicans have the strength to override vetoes if party discipline holds. But the Council of Churches and its friends, mindful of all that’s at stake, would be grateful to see the outgoing governor defend his successor’s ability to lead as the voters who chose Roy Cooper expect him to do.