The NC House of Representatives took up three veto overrides Wednesday, overcoming the objections of Gov. Roy Cooper on House Bills 198, 834, and 237.

DOT Changes

House Bill 198 enacts myriad legislative changes regarding the NC Department pf Transportation (NCDOT). Though the changes were reportedly recommended by Cooper’s own Secretary of NCDOT, he vetoed the legislation over provisions allowing for tree cutting around billboards placed in the DOT of right of way.

In his veto message Cooper lamented the potential threat to native trees and plants posed by the legislation, referencing his executive order to plant one million trees in the state.

The provision extends the distance owners can cut or prune trees or vegetation four inches or less in diameter, from 200 feet on either side of the sign, to 300 feet. The bill protects native dogwoods, but removes protection for native Eastern Redbuds (Virginia Redbuds).

Campaign finance, masks

House Bill 237 was ratified by both chambers of the General Assembly exactly two weeks ago, with the governor vetoing the legislation last week.  The legislation restricts the wearing of masks in public protests and increases penalties for impeding traffic as part of a protest, as well as altering campaign finance laws in North Carolina.

In rebuking the campaign finance reform portions of the bill, Cooper said it creates a “gaping loophole for secret, unlimited campaign money in the middle of an election year.”

Rep. Grey Mills, R-Iredell, insisted that the legislation does not open the door to dark money, as Democrats have claimed. According to an article from Jim Stirling of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, the bill puts national political parties on more equal footing, potentially limiting the fundraising advantage that Democrats had enjoyed in recent years.

“[T]he bill does not modify contribution limits,” wrote Stirling. “Individual candidates may only accept $6,400 from a given source apart from political parties or affiliate organizations.  This affects only federal committees, whether they be 527 political party committees or Federal level PACs.”

Stirling further points out that, while the bill offers a new vehicle in which large contributors may inject substantial funding into the North Carolina elections, they already can do so through the state’s political parties and their affiliated committees. 

Cooper also criticized the removal of protections for people who want to wear a mask in public, though language in the legislation already exempts those masking up for strictly health purposes. Masking prohibitions were lifted during the pandemic panic, in which the sudden push for masks conflicted with 1950s era laws aimed at the Klu Klux Klan prohibiting the practice of concealing one’s identity during protest.

The bill specifically allows individuals to wear “a medical or surgical grade mask for the purpose of preventing the spread of contagious disease.”

“Bad actors have been using masks to conceal their identity when they commit crimes and intimidate the innocent,” said Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, in a statement responding to Cooper’s veto of the bill. “Instead of helping put an end to this threatening behavior, the governor wants to continue encouraging these thugs by giving them more time to hide from the consequences of their actions. I look forward to casting a vote to override this veto and allowing those with actual health concerns to protect themselves and others.”

Juvenile Justice

The House also voted to override the governor’s veto of House Bill 834, which expands the offenses for which 16- and 17-year-olds are tried as adults. 

“If a juvenile was 16 years of age or older at the time the juvenile allegedly committed an offense that would be a Class F or G felony if committed by an adult, the court shall transfer jurisdiction over the juvenile to the superior court for trial as in the case of adults unless the prosecutor declines to prosecute in a superior court…” reads the bill

Critics of the reforms say it rolls back some of the protections for 16- and 17-year-olds accused of crimes, but supporters say it streamlines the process and keeps the more violent offenders in custody.

“A lot of prosecutors and law enforcement officers have been complaining that too many dangerous 16 and 17-year-old offenders are being released back onto the streets,” Jon Guze, senior fellow of legal studies at The John Locke Foundation, told Carolina Journal. “This bill responds to those complaints by rolling back the ‘Raise the Age’ reforms enacted in 2017. In particular, it expands the range of offenses for which 16 and 17-year-old offenders will be prosecuted as adults rather than juveniles.”

The Division of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety acknowledge in their statement that the bill does provide an avenue to transfer some cases back to the juvenile division.

“The Department of Public Safety worked with interested stakeholders to amend HB 834 to its present form,” said William Lassiter, deputy secretary of the DJJDP. “Specifically, the Department sought to add components to the bill that will allow juveniles to be removed from adult court and transferred to juvenile court if all parties involved believe that is the best option to protect public safety and in the best interest of the juvenile involved.”

House Bill 834 had bipartisan support in the state legislature. It passed House in June with seven Democrats in favor, and just one Republican opposed. It passed the Senate in May with all Republicans and 11 Democrats on board.

To pass legislation into law, notwithstanding the objections of the governor, a bill must pass both chambers with the support of three-fifths of legislators.

Each veto override vote received the requisite 3/5 support in the House, Wednesday, and now will be sent by special message to the Senate for final override votes.