Last week, in a special session watched closely (and panned widely) by observers around the country, the North Carolina General Assembly passed two bills, Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 17, designed primarily to limit the power of the governor’s office before Democrat Roy Cooper takes the position in January. (Senate Bill 4 is now officially state law, as outgoing Governor Pat McCrory signed it at the end of the week. As of Monday morning, though, McCrory had not yet signed House Bill 17 – despite media reports to the contrary.)
House Bill 17 would reduce the governor’s appointment power; among other things, it cuts the number of “non-exempt” state government positions (that the governor gets to fill) by more than a thousand, from 1,500 to less than 500. Senate Bill 4 changes the partisan makeup of election boards: rather than being controlled by the governor’s party, the State Board of Elections and all 100 county boards will be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. SB4 also affects North Carolina’s judicial system, shifting some power away from the (Democratic-controlled) State Supreme Court and onto the (GOP-controlled) State Court of Appeals. (It also makes judicial elections partisan – so when you vote in judicial races, the candidates’ party affiliation will appear on the ballot.)
Criticism of the special session has taken three forms. First, Democrats and progressives have criticized the manner in which the bills got passed: GOP legislators drew up the bills privately, with no public feedback or input from Democrats – and they were hurriedly passed in a special session, which is typically only called in the case of an immediate crisis or a court order. Second, Democrats have complained that the NCGA’s actions constitute a “power grab” without precedent in North Carolina’s history. (Not many Republicans have disputed the “power grab” charge, but they have countered that there are lots of historical precedents. The actual truth is in the middle: this is the first time the NCGA has enacted so many power-shifting measures at once, but North Carolina Democrats have passed many laws in the past to hang on to power after unfavorable elections.)
The third critique, however, is perhaps the most important: what effects will HB17 and SB4 actually have on state government? Will they make North Carolina run better, or worse? Judicial observers are particularly concerned about Senate Bill 4, which shifts power to the State Court of Appeals: that court, they say, is already one of the most overworked courts in the country, so a measure that adds to its workload could bog down the entire judicial system. (Those same observers say SB4 could also make it more difficult for an individual to challenge a state law – since it requires all 15 judges on the Court of Appeals to hear a case before it can be appealed to the State Supreme Court.)
WCHL’s Aaron Keck discussed SB4 and HB17 with NC Central law professor and Carrboro mayor Lydia Lavelle; constitutional attorney and former Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt; and Hillsborough town commissioner Jennifer Weaver, who was one of several dozen people arrested last week at the State Capitol while demonstrating against the NCGA.