Debate On NC Governor's Power Follows Session
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina is still new to veto politics, becoming the last state in the country to give its chief executive the formal power to block laws in 1997. The first veto occurred in 2002, and although lawmakers overrode 11 vetoes in 2011 and 2012, the first override occurred just five years ago.
So action on legislation is still apt to scrutiny on the limits of gubernatorial power. It happened again this year as new Republican Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed two bills from the GOP-led legislature and issued executive orders about the contents of another bill he signed into law.
The legislature overrode both vetoes this month, but McCrory announced he wouldn't implement a portion of one of the laws requiring more routine drug testing of welfare recipients. He said there just wasn't enough money to do it. The budget sets aside a reserve for drug testing and other laws. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said McCrory must faithfully carry out laws, citing the state constitution. McCrory's office points to the same document in defense of spending only money appropriated by law.
Now some Republican lawmakers have questioned the executive orders McCrory issued while signing into law a regulatory overhaul bill that direct how provisions on trash trucks and billboards are carried out.
House Majority Whip Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, recently likened these executive orders to "line-item" vetoes, which governors in most other states can use by striking out a portion of a bill while signing the rest. North Carolina is one of six states without such gubernatorial power.
Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe and one of the regulatory bill's chief sponsors, said he's pleased the governor signed the bill into law. Still, he said, the state constitution only gives him three options with a bill - sign it into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
"Where in the constitution does it say that the governor can sign a piece of legislation and simultaneously issue executive orders that affect the law that the governor just signed?" Moffitt asked. As to whether the governor crossed the line of his power, he added, "I think it's a conversation worth having."
McCrory applauded the regulatory overhaul, which he said would cut government red tape and help small businesses. But he was concerned about some sections.
So he issued an executive order that explains how officers will carry out a provision that says water accumulated from precipitation that leaks from a trash truck does not break the law. McCrory said provisions of the law appeared to be in conflict with one another. He directed state law enforcement to issue a citation to a truck driver if they determined leaking precipitation passed through solid waste.
The governor also directed state transportation officials to consult with municipalities before approving plans to cut vegetation outside a predetermined zone designed to ensure billboards can be seen from a road.
McCrory said the executive orders were necessary because the General Assembly combined bills into omnibus legislation late in the session in July without enough debate on finer points.
For "some of those combined bills, for example, I've had to make some adjustments," he said recently.
Moffitt said he's concerned giving local governments consulting power over state transportation duties could set a bad precedent. Other Republicans suggest the trash truck order is now ripe for challenge a truck driver is cited for leaking water.
Bob Stephens, McCrory's general counsel, said in a statement "executive orders are a tool the governor has to operate state government, and in this case, provide clarity to the departments and agencies charged with enforcing legislation. Executive orders provide instruction and definition."
Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice and frequent lawyer for litigants with constitutional issues, said case law is thin in North Carolina about executive orders.
It would likely take a lawsuit that goes all the way to the Supreme Court before the power is well defined, he said. Until then, Orr added, "any governor can push the envelope as far as he or she may want."
Gov. Beverly Perdue issued a one-year moratorium on new or higher ferry tolls last year, even though the 2011 state budget - which she vetoed but became law anyway - directed the Department of Transportation to issue them. The state Attorney General's Office questioned her ability to block the tolls, but ultimately Republican legislators backed off the toll increases, which Perdue labeled a "ferry tax."
Predecessor Gov. Mike Easley also issued orders in 2002, 2005 and 2007 as legislative budget negotiations dragged on to spend state funds on hiring public school teachers and expanding pre-kindergarten - popular items that fellow Democrats saw no benefit to grumble loudly about. Opposition to McCrory's executive orders hasn't been loud.
Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, said he believes McCrory is in the wrong on failing to carry out the drug testing law. But Coble is sympathetic to the governor's troubles to carry out the regulatory bill. He suggested stronger relationships and communication between McCrory and legislative leaders could help head off some future troubles. The process of using North Carolina's inherently weak veto won't do the trick.
"It's a really blunt instrument," he said.