Gov. Roy Cooper soon must deal with the first piece of legislation passed by the 2017 General Assembly. The way he handles House Bill 39 could signal how combative the governor will be the rest of the session.
H.B. 39 would reduce the number of seats on the UNC Board of Governors from 32 to 24, with the board’s size shrinking as current members leave the board voluntarily or their terms expire. The measure, designed to make the board more efficient, has the support of UNC system President Margaret Spellings and the vast majority of state lawmakers. It passed the House 108-4 and the Senate 38-7 with bipartisan support. Among Democrats who voted, 90 percent of House members and five of 12 senators backed the bill.
Cooper hasn’t yet indicated if he will sign the bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. If he chooses the final approach, North Carolinians are in for a needlessly testy, confrontational summer.
Until now, the Democratic governor has chosen to express his opposition to the GOP-led General Assembly by going to court. Cooper has filed lawsuits challenging bills passed in December that would require Senate confirmation of his Cabinet picks (as allowed in the N.C. Constitution) and reduce his appointment powers.*
Cooper and new Attorney General Josh Stein recently withdrew the state’s support from a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s voter ID requirement and several other election reforms passed by the GOP General Assembly and signed into law by Cooper’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
But those decisions dealt with laws that were on the books before Cooper became governor. Now the General Assembly is passing laws on Cooper’s watch. How will he respond?
If he vetoes H.B. 39, the General Assembly easily could override the governor. The House can override with 72 votes, the Senate with 30; both bodies passed the measure with plenty of votes to spare. Moreover, a veto would indicate that the governor plans to fight everything the General Assembly does — even bills supported by members of his own party.
It would be a pugnacious stance, but pointless.
Governors, regardless of party affiliation, are not expected to be a rubber stamp for the General Assembly. A prudent leader, though, picks his battles carefully, expending political capital when there’s a major philosophical difference at stake — or a decent chance to prevail.
H.B. 39 would take an unwieldy mess of a board and make it more manageable. Is that a figurative hill to die for?
Rick Henderson is editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal.
*This story was edited after initial posting to correct the governor’s involvement in lawsuits.