There’s a secret nobody in the Raleigh power establishment will confirm.
It is this: our Republican governor, Pat McCrory, would not mind if there were a few more Democrats in the General Assembly after this fall’s elections.
When you ask people close to the governor about this possibility, they are not likely to give you a straightforward “yes” in response. But their flashing eyes and quick grins tell you that they think the governor would have more strength dealing with the legislature if there were fewer Republicans.
As The Charlotte Observer’s Jim Morrill wrote earlier this month, “Gov. Pat McCrory’s first months on the job were trying. Legislators from his own party drove major policy debates on abortion rights and voter identification in 2013, often leaving the new governor little more than a spectator.”
It is not the first time a North Carolina governor and a legislature controlled by the same party have butted heads. “Just who does he think he is?” I remember one powerful legislator exclaiming when a powerful education governor stepped over some imaginary boundary line while trying to push legislators to fund a new educational program.
Recent governors have had a weapon in their dealings with the legislature, one that (arguably, at least) McCrory does not have. It is the power to veto legislation.
But McCrory does have the veto. Why suggest that he does not?
The value of his veto power is limited because the Republican legislative leaders have a veto-proof majority in both houses. North Carolina’s Constitution provides that the legislature can override a governor’s veto by action of three-fifths of the members of both chambers.
To override a governor’s veto in the state senate, 30 votes are needed. Republicans control 33 of the 50 seats.
In the house, 72 votes are needed. Today, Republicans have 77 of the 120 seats.
With their current majorities, the Republican legislative leadership has the votes to override the governor’s veto. With his veto power diminished, the governor has a hard time demanding a seat at the table or insisting on being consulted when major legislation is under consideration.
With just a few more Democrats (four more in the senate and six more in the house), the veto-proof majority would disappear and the governor would get a seat at the table.
Or so the story goes.
However, longtime observers of North Carolina government remind us that most of our governors had to get along without the veto until 1996 when we amended our constitution. Until then, North Carolina was the only state whose governor lacked the veto power.
Prior to 1996, governors without the veto had to find other ways to lead. And they did, using their power to control the state bureaucracy, to make appointments to high positions, to direct highway and construction spending, to exercise their budget authority, to enforce state laws and regulations, to grant permits for activities, and to use their access to the media and the “bully pulpit” of the governor’s office.
Prior governors, like Sanford, Hodges, Holshouser, Martin and Hunt, did more. They courted legislators, inviting them to regular breakfast meals at the governor’s mansion and paying regular attention to them.
Speaking to a group of reporters earlier this month, former house speaker and current senate minority leader Dan Blue emphasized the importance of what he called the knowledge of “inside baseball” as an important part of the skill set of our prior successful governors.
Ironically, the line of strong North Carolina governors ended about the same time the governor got the veto power.
Maybe a few more Democrats in the legislature next year would give our governor a seat at the table. But it will not, by itself, get him into the pantheon of North Carolina’s most successful governors.