The 2017-18 session of the N.C. General Assembly wrapped up Thursday, setting a record by overriding the 22nd and 23rd vetoes of the biennium.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper set a record of his own by rejecting 28 items of legislation during his first two years in office. Cooper easily surpassed Democrat Bev Perdue, who vetoed 20 bills over her four-year term.
Republicans took advantage of the waning days of their supermajority to adopt measures passed earlier this month dealing with elections/ethics enforcement and a catch-all technical corrections bill. House Bill 1029 largely restored the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission, which were separate agencies before a December 2016 law combined them into a single body. Senate Bill 469 included the usual end-of-session provisions cleaning up legislation which may have had some technical problems — and threw in a few policy items which might not have passed separately.
The override vote for H.B. 1029 was 69-39 in the House and 28-12 in the Senate. The vote overturning the veto of S.B. 469 was 31-10 in the Senate and 71-39 in the House.
An override requires at least 60 percent support from members present and voting in each legislative chamber.
In his veto message, Cooper objected to a portion of H.B. 1029 which, he said, would block from public scrutiny investigations of campaign finance violations, allowing corruption to go unchecked.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, last week countered with a statement noting that the bill didn’t change penalties for violating campaign laws. As for the governor’s complaint about a lack of transparency, Berger said the bill would keep campaign-finance complaints confidential unless the State Ethics Commission reviewed them and recommended criminal prosecution. At that point, the information would become public.
The procedure, Berger said, would prevent innocent candidates and campaign organizations from having bogus allegations publicized.
The bill also would require a new primary election in the 9th U.S. Congressional District if the State Board of Elections orders a do-over based on allegations of absentee ballot fraud.
The bill restores a five-member State Board of Elections, with three members from the governor’s political party. It creates an eight-member, bipartisan State Ethics Commission to handle ethics and campaign finance investigations. It also returns lobbying regulations to the office of the Secretary of State.
During debate on the override, Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, noted the changes resulted from a series of losses by the legislature in state court over separation of powers. Bishop quipped the bill — which initially passed the Senate 34-3 — should have given Cooper and Democrats chances to be “gracious winners.”
Instead, Bishop said, Cooper added a new charge, linking the investigation into the 9th District to the elections bill.
“Disturbing allegations of election fraud in the 9th Congressional District race are mounting. Yet it’s astonishing that the legislature has passed a bill, H.B. 1029 (which I vetoed), that mandates secrecy for campaign finance investigations by the Elections Board. Not only that, the new bill makes it harder to prosecute people and groups that violate campaign finance laws,” Cooper said yesterday in a statement.
Bishop called Cooper’s charges false.
“We’ve seen enough to know Gov. Cooper’s true intention is to weaponize North Carolina’s elections board with political actors for partisan gain,” Bishop said Thursday.
Cooper had two objections to S.B. 469: a section dealing with wastewater regulations and a provision allowing employees of municipally run charter schools to join the state employees’ pension and health plans.
The legislature has allowed four Mecklenburg County municipalities to operate charter schools with state approval. None of the towns has applied.
A separate provision in the bill would allow a local school district to operate a failing public school which otherwise would be transferred to the Innovative School District and operated like a charter school. Wayne County Public Schools wanted to take charge of struggling Carver Heights Elementary School in Goldsboro, which had been designated to the ISD. Parents and residents railed against state education officials for ISD assignment. Wayne County now can operate the school under ISD regulations.
The session adjourned sine die about 4 p.m. Thursday. The 2019-20 session is set to convene Jan. 9 at noon. The Republican majority in the House will shrink by 10 seats, from 75-45 to 65-55. Republicans will control 29 of the 50 Senate seats; the GOP had a 35-15 majority in the 2017-18 session. Neither chamber has enough Republicans to override a potential Cooper veto with a straight party-line vote.