News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper threatens veto over elections board bill

Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018 (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018 (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday, Dec. 18 he would veto a bill returning the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to separate agencies over concerns about a provision related to campaign finance investigations. But he would wait to issue the veto, hoping the legislature will pass a new version of the bill removing the provision.

During a news conference, Cooper said House Bill 1029 makes it more difficult to investigate campaign-finance complaints. He said the bill aims to obscure the truth.

“This bill makes it harder to root out corruption in elections and campaign finance,” Cooper said. “This bill was a rush job that at first glance is an improvement.”

Lawmakers passed H.B. 1029 Dec. 12 by wide margins. The bill resulted from a longstanding battle between Cooper and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly over changes to the elections and ethics boards.

During a 2016 lame-duck session, lawmakers passed legislation merging the elections board and the ethics board into one bipartisan agency. The governor, who once had majority appointment power over the elections board, lost that authority under the new board.

Cooper sued and argued the changes violated his constitutional appointment powers. In a series of court cases, judges sided with the governor and ruled the board unconstitutional.

Lawmakers tried a constitutional fix by placing an amendment on the ballot, which would have kept the merged board. Voters rejected it.

The Superior Court panel overseeing the legal challenge to the state board has delayed dissolving it, giving lawmakers time to come up with a legislative fix.

H.B. 1029, a conference report that essentially turned back the clock on the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, was introduced to comply with the court’s ruling. Not only does the bill return the two boards to their 2016 makeup and grant the governor majority appointment power, H.B. 1029 calls for a new filing period and a primary if the State Board of Elections orders a new election in the 9th Congressional District. The current elections board is investigating alleged absentee ballot irregularities in the 9th District, which may lead the board to order a new election.

Cooper didn’t object to these aspects of H.B. 1029. But, he said, Section 4 of the bill goes awry. Section 4 would make investigations into alleged campaign finance violations confidential and place a four-year statute of limitations on investigations.

While Cooper acknowledged the bill passed with bipartisan support, he said lawmakers weren’t given enough time to weigh the benefits of the bill with the drawbacks of Section 4. And since H.B. 1029 was a conference report, Cooper noted lawmakers couldn’t amend the bill.

Soon after Cooper’s press conference, the office of Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, accused the governor of trying to weaponize the state election boards’ investigatory power.

“The legislature will not allow the governor to use the partisan Board of Elections as a blunt instrument to hammer his political adversaries,” Patrick Ryan, a spokesman for Berger, wrote in an emailed statement. “Governor Cooper’s failure to act is holding the entire Board of Elections hostage, including the NC-9 investigation, in his effort to achieve unchecked power to launch corrupt and unfounded partisan attacks on legislators.”

Cooper said he is delaying his veto to give lawmakers time this week to pass the same bill without Section 4.