GOP Power Grab Would Make NC Guv One Of The Weakest In The Country

Governor-elect Roy Cooper holds a press conference to complain about efforts by Republicans to cut the power of the Governor's office during the special session of the General Assembly that is going on a few blocks away on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.
Chris Seward/The News & Observer

The package of proposals North Carolina Republican lawmakers are pushing in the surprise special session would drastically weaken the power of the governor, compared not just to what previous governors enjoyed but also compared to governors in other states, according to political experts.

“This would be a dramatic reversal of what trends have been, and it would make the governor of North Carolina probably the weakest governor, at least on paper, in the United States,” Thomas Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University, told TPM.

The GOP gambit in the short term would deny the governor certain powers right before Democrat Roy Cooper is sworn in, tilting the political playing field to the advantage of the GOP legislature. But the move also defied recent trends toward a stronger governor in North Carolina.

“The trend, over the last, I would say, several decades, has been for the office of governor to get stronger,” Eamon told TPM, adding that if passed, the new proposals would mark a big reversal.

The extraordinary power grab by the lame-duck GOP legislature comes after Cooper defeated Gov. Pat McCrory (R) in a bitter election battle that dragged a month past Election Day. After a special session this week to address disaster relief legislation, the Republican-led state General Assembly called an additional surprise special session and proceeded to introduce legislation that would strip the governor’s authority when it comes to political appointees and reduce his power over the election system.

In a proposal from North Carolina House Republicans, the governor’s cabinet appointees would now be subject to approval from the state Senate, which Eamon said would be a “dramatic change.” The legislation would also reduce from 1,500 to 300 the number of “exempt positions” — which are often political in nature — appointed by the governor. This comes after the same Republican legislature in 2013 increased the number of exempt positions McCrory could appoint by about 1,000 jobs. The bill would also allow many of the political employees appointed by McCrory to stay on as permanent staffers under Cooper’s administration.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, told TPM that the proposal would shift political appointees from the governor to other elected officials, many of whom are Republicans.

State GOP lawmakers in particular gave more power to the state superintendent now that a Republican has been elected to the office. Bitzer said that shifting power to the state superintendent “would basically be a slight against the governor-elect.” Under the proposal, the governor would no longer have control over charter schools and would not be able to appoint members to the state education board or the University of North Carolina system’s board of trustees.

The governor would retain veto power, but with a super majority in both houses of the state General Assembly, Republicans would easily be able to override Cooper. This legislation would leave Cooper with significantly less power than past North Carolina governors.

“If all of this happened, the governor of North Carolina would, for the moment, be the weakest that the governor has been in history, certainly the last 100 years or more,” Eamon told TPM.

A proposal that has now passed in the state Senate would also change the make-up of the state election board and prevent Democrats from gaining majority control.

Under the current system, the state elections board is made up of three members from the governor’s party and two from the minority party, and the county election board majorities also align with the governor. But the new proposal in the state Senate would create an eight-member state board with four members from each party, and would expand county boards to four members, with two individuals from each party. This measure would prevent Cooper and state Democrats from overseeing the elections system.

The legislation would also have a Democrat chair the state elections board in odd years, and Republican chair the board in even years, when major elections typically take place. However, it’s unclear how much authority the chair would have.

Eamon told TPM that the series of proposals introduced by Republicans on Wednesday would “drastically shake up state government.”

Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said that the Republicans’ proposal to curb the governor’s authority is an “unprecedented” power grab.

“Clearly we have this group of legislators here who just basically want to get away with anything they possibly can,” Greene told TPM.