TOPICS > Politics

In North Carolina, new laws to limit governor’s power

December 17, 2016 at 4:49 PM EST
Last month, incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost the governor's race to Democrat Roy Cooper. The election spurred Republican state lawmakers to call a special legislative session and pass laws that limit the power of the incoming governor. Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the University of North Carolina Law School in Chapel Hill, joins Alison Stewart.

Read the full transcript below.

ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: One bright spot for Democrats in last month’s elections was winning the governorship of North Carolina. Democrat Roy Cooper ousted incumbent Republican Pat McCrory, but only after a recount confirmed Cooper’s narrow victory.

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state legislature is not taking the loss lightly. Yesterday, it passed laws limiting the power of the incoming governor. One strips him of the power to appoint a majority of commissioners to the state’s board of elections. Another cuts by two-thirds the number of government employees the governor can appoint, from 1,500 to fewer than 500.

Hundreds of protesters chanting “power grab” filled the halls of the state capitol in Raleigh during the legislative sessions yesterday. Thirty-nine of them were arrested.

Michael Gerhardt is a professor at the University of North Carolina Law School in Chapel Hill, and he joins me now to discuss these developments.

Professor, let’s start really broad and then we’ll drill down. Why did this happen?

MICHAEL GERHARDT, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA LAW SCHOOL IN CHAPEL HILL: Well, that’s a very good question. The legislature had initially called it a special session to deal with disaster relief, and then they extended it to consider other bills. There was some concern about where else the legislature would go, and now, we have a sense of where they’ve gone.

STEWART: And why did they go there?

GERHARDT: They’ve claimed that they’ve done this in part because they have concerns about the governorship of North Carolina being too powerful a position, and so, they want to constrain it. Historically, those of us who follow these things don’t think of the governorship of North Carolina as being a very powerful office. It’s one of the last states in the country to give the governorship the veto power. It’s been a pretty weak office anyway, but it’s now weaker as a result of the legislature’s actions.

STEWART: Is that why some supporters of the action, the legislature’s action, said it was a needed realignment of power, while other people are saying it’s an overreach?

GERHARDT: I think that’s exactly right. So, it depends on where you sit on that divide. If you agree with the outcomes, you would say, yes, we’re just trying to constrain a governor from doing things we don’t agree with. And if you’re on the other side, you would say this is really trying to undermine an incoming governor’s relatively limited discretion by limiting that discretion further.

STEWART: Some of the criticisms of what has happened was not only that it happened, but how it happened and how it was done.

How did it happen so quickly?

GERHARDT: It happened very fast because we have a legislature that is veto proof. It’s got such a strong control by the Republican Party that, that party’s leaders can pretty much do whatever they want in the legislature. And that’s what we saw. I think in part this happens, frankly, because I think the legislature believes it can do this kind of thing and get away with it.

Keep in mind that many of these people — in fact all of them — were just re-elected in pretty safe seats. So, the majority and super majority of the state legislature feel secure politically.

STEWART: This move is getting national attention and even international attention, but what I want to know from you is, what’s that local element of it, that North Carolinian element, a dog whistle, that you folks hear that maybe we don’t necessarily key into?

I think there are a couple of things. One is, of course, I’m at the University of North Carolina. We’re a public university, and we take great pride in that. And one of the things that the state legislature did yesterday was it restricted the governor from making any appointments to the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina.

So, the governor-elect, Roy Cooper, had made public education a real focus of his campaign. And that’s just one of the limitations now placed on him. So, his ability to influence the future direction of the university has been limited to some extent. And then there are other areas in which the state legislature redesigned things.

For example, you mentioned the state election system, election board. That realignment is likely to make it harder, if not impossible, for the current — the governor-elect to be able to influence election boards, which means the current people in power will be able to maintain power.

STEWART: Something else interesting about North Carolina is that it’s not necessarily a reliably red state or a blue state in 2016. It’s really quite purple and we’ve seen that with a lot of the news stories we’ve been covering out of North Carolina, from LGBT rights, to voter ID issues. What’s going on in North Carolina that you think is important for us to pay attention to, in terms of the whole country?

GERHARDT: North Carolina, maybe to some extent, a microcosm of the divide that we see across the country. The country, obviously, was very divided in so far as the last presidential election was concerned. And North Carolina, I think, is to some extent, a purple state because of the divisions.

And those divisions are not just party-wide between Republican and Democrat. They’re divisions between urban and rural as well. There’s a division over values. And we see those divisions work themselves out when the legislature acts like this.

STEWART: The legislature did — what they did was perfectly legal. So, I’m wondering about other states what have this sort of same split within the legislature, between Democrats and Republicans. There are six other states that have this split. Is what happens in North Carolina, could that set a precedent for other states?

GERHARDT: Well, it could. I think you’re probably right what this would be upheld as legal, but you’re exactly right to sort of call attention to this. What other states do will be important. Is North Carolina going to be an example of something to follow? Or is it going to be an example of something to avoid?

STEWART: Michael Gerhardt from the University of North Carolina — thank you so much for joining us.

GERHARDT: Thanks for having me.