It’s being called a “power grab” by observers across the country: meeting in special session this week amidst a firestorm of protest, the GOP-controlled General Assembly is set to approve a pair of bills designed to strip power from North Carolina’s newly-elected Democratic governor – and other state agencies that Democrats are about to control.
Senate Bill 4 – passed by the State Senate on Thursday – would accomplish that by changing the makeup of the State Board of Elections and the 100 county election boards. Currently the SBOE is a five-member board with two Democrats, two Republicans, and a fifth member who belongs to the governor’s party. That would leave the SBOE in Democratic hands beginning in January – but SB4 would eliminate that advantage by creating a new board (the “Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement”) with eight members, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. County election boards currently have three members, with the governor’s party holding the decisive seat; SB4 would add a fourth to guarantee an even split between the two major parties.
SB4 would also give more power to the State Court of Appeals – currently dominated by Republicans – at the expense of the State Supreme Court, which now has a slight Democratic majority following the November election. Currently, the State Supreme Court hears appeals in cases in which a lower court rules that the NCGA has violated the state or U.S. Constitution; SB4 would require those cases to go through the Court of Appeals first. Cases heard by the Court of Appeals are heard by a three-judge panel, after which the losing party can appeal to the State Supreme Court if there’s a conflict among the three judges – but SB4 would change that as well, requiring all 15 judges on the Court of Appeals to rehear the case first (“en banc”) before any appeal to the higher court. (SB4 would still allow appeals directly to the Supreme Court if there’s a “substantial” Constitutional question.)
Perhaps even more controversial is House Bill 17, which reduces the governor’s power to appoint officials. There are currently 1500 “exempt” positions in state government, which are filled by the governor; HB17 would reduce that number to 300. (This is roughly where it was in 2012; the NCGA significantly increased the number of political appointees as soon as Pat McCrory won the gubernatorial race.) Members of the State Board of Education that are currently appointed by the governor would instead be appointed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The governor currently has the power to appoint three members to the state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board; that number would drop to zero. The governor currently has the power to appoint four members to each of the 16 UNC boards of trustees; that number would also drop to zero. (All those appointments would be made instead by the State House Speaker, the State Senate president pro tem, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction; all three are Republicans.) In addition, anyone appointed by the governor to a cabinet position would have to be confirmed first by the (GOP-controlled) State Senate.
Democrats and progressives have slammed not only the content of the bills, but also the manner in which they’re being passed. Even some Republicans have criticized the measures – including State Board of Education president and vice-president Bill Cobey and Buddy Collins, who spoke out in opposition to HB17. Former Governor Jim Martin, a Republican, also criticized HB17 in a joint statement with Democratic former Governor Jim Hunt.
But Democrats and Republicans aren’t just debating the content of the bills or the wisdom of passing them in special session – they’re also fighting about North Carolina’s history. Is this something that’s happened before? Democrats say no: “What is happening now is unprecedented,” said Governor-elect Roy Cooper in a press conference Thursday, echoing many House and Senate Democrats and progressive observers. But other Republicans (including Martin, to an extent) are saying HB17 and SB4 are simply politics as usual: state GOP leader Dallas Woodhouse, for one, tweeted that Democrats had a “history of partisan political power moves” when they controlled the General Assembly. (Among other incidents, Republicans cite the firing of hundreds of staffers in 1976 and a move by the NCGA in the mid-1980s to reduce then-Gov. Martin’s appointment powers.)
So who’s right? Is this week’s special session merely “politics as usual” – or do SB4 and HB17 represent a power grab on a level we’ve never seen before? And assuming they pass, what will be their actual impact on state government?
WCHL’s Aaron Keck spoke with former NCGA special counsel Gerry Cohen, an expert in North Carolina government and its political history. Cohen says there have been many partisan “power grabs” in the past, but SB4 and HB17 are “certainly much more comprehensive” than any of those earlier incidents.
Listen to their conversation.
And in terms of the impact on state government: Cohen says it’s worth watching the county and state election boards when it comes time to set times and locations for early voting. County boards are authorized to do that, but it falls to the state board if there’s no consensus on the county level – and if the state board can’t decide, then the county will only have one early-voting site, at the county’s Board of Elections office. SB4 requires at least six of the eight SBOE members to agree on anything – so Cohen says there’s a real chance that could become a reality.