News: CJ Exclusives

GOP lawmakers want to limit governor’s emergency powers

A handful of House Republicans have introduced a series of bills to limit the governor’s powers in a state of emergency, a move that’s likely to further divide politics in Raleigh, political scientists say.

House Bill 1059 would prohibit the governor from preventing religious organizations from gathering in a place of worship during a state of emergency. Under the bill, the governor can request religious organizations to limit capacity inside a place of worship to 20% of the maximum building capacity.

A similar bill was filed in the Senate on Monday, May 18. Senate Bill 781 would prevent the governor from issuing an executive order prohibiting or restricting a religious institution from engaging in regular activities or gathering for worship service. Like H.B. 1059, the Senate bill allows the governor to make recommendations. 

House Bill 1033 and House Bill 1054 propose constitutional amendments requiring the governor to convene a special session within 14 days of announcing a statewide state of emergency or for the General Assembly to convene a special session after a statewide emergency declaration. 

Some of the bills’ sponsors have publicly criticized Gov. Roy Cooper’s handling of the COVID-19 response, particularly how Cooper’s executive orders have affected religious services. 

Reps. Michael Speciale, R-Craven; Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus; Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort; and Jerry Carter, R-Rockingham, attended a rally last week announcing a federal lawsuit challenging the effect of the governor’s executive order on indoor worship services. A federal judge ruled Saturday against Cooper, arguing there’s no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The bills are likely to spark partisan bickering, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“The battle lines where Democrats tend to support gubernatorial power and Republicans support legislative power have been drawn since 2011 and have seen considerable warfare over the years,” Cooper said. 

The three bills in question, while chipping away at the governor’s powers, would have a lesser effect than previous efforts to reduce that power, Cooper said. 

The bills are reminiscent of Republican lawmakers’ attempts to strip appointment powers from Governor Cooper, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith University. 

The professors agree the governor probably won’t sign any of the aforementioned bills.

“The North Carolina governorship is already one of the weakest in the country, and any governor would likely balk at having any of her or his powers removed,” McLennan said. “Governor Cooper’s high approval ratings would also give him confidence that his veto would be perceived in a positive way.”

If the bills make it to the governor’s desk, people can expect a replay of previous battles between the General Assembly and the governor, WCU’s Cooper said. 

Think about the movie, “Groundhog Day,” he said. 

“Given the partisan math in the General Assembly, this basic series of events —  passage, veto, not enough votes to override the veto — seems like the most likely path,” Chris Cooper said. 

The governor will call the bills a legislative power grab. Republican lawmakers will make a similar argument about the governor.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican running for governor against Cooper, has frequently criticized Cooper’s response to COVID-19. When Cooper issued an executive order limiting restaurants to takeout or deliveries, Forest questioned the legality of the move because the Council of State didn’t concur with the decision.

Forest again criticized Cooper’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak when the governor announced Phase One of reopening the state’s economy.

“The Governor’s Phase One rollout makes it clear that he feels that only he can protect us from this virus,” Forest said in a May 6 news release. “He does not believe that North Carolinians have enough self-control, restraint, or common sense to act responsibly in a world with COVID-19.”