A measure to limit Gov. Roy Cooper’s emergency powers passed in the N.C. House of Representatives last week.
House Bill 264, referred to as the Emergency Powers Accountability Act, would require the governor to receive approval from a majority of the Council of State — the collective name for the heads of the state’s senior executive offices — before exercising any emergency powers or declaring a state of emergency. The Council of State currently has a Republican majority.
HB 264 passed in a strictly partisan 69-50 vote on March 31, and was referred to the N.C. Senate’s committee of rules and operations the following day.
If it becomes law, the bill would also limit the maximum length of a state of emergency to seven days if the Council of State does not approve it, and it would require the approval of the Council of State to extend emergency declarations by more than 30 days.
The bill also contains language restricting the ability of the State Health Director and the Governor’s office to order persons or animals to quarantine or isolate because of a public health threat. They would need to work through the state’s judicial system to secure an extension to any isolation order lasting over seven days, and would also need the approval of the Council of State for such orders.
Opposition in the chamber
Democrats in the House chamber were uniformly in opposition to HB 264 with not a single one voting in favor when it passed last week.
Among them was N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer (D – Caswell, Orange), who said he believed the bill was a strictly political effort from legislative Republicans to limit the power of Gov. Cooper.
“They are pandering to their base who deny science and seem to inherently reject any policy just because it is implemented by a Democratic elected official,” Meyer said in an email.
He also said delegating emergency powers to the Council of State would be ridiculous, comparing the measure to a business handing over the reigns of its operations to a committee during a crisis.
Meyer said emergencies are when the state needs strong executive leadership the most and that the governor should have the power to lead during crises regardless of what party they belong to.
N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey (D – Durham) said the chief executive is the one people look to in times of crisis because there is rarely time to get a diverse perspective from other groups.
She also said she understood that Republicans believed the governor overstepped his bounds during the pandemic, but these actions were only taken out of necessity.
Morey said Cooper did not enjoy having to shut the state down through emergency declarations, but she believed his actions have been absolutely necessary, despite them being unpopular.
“I think he’s done an admirable job to keep the public safe during a pandemic,” Morey said. “It’s not politics. It’s public health and public safety.”
She added that she was also opposed to clipping the governor’s wings, regardless of what party, in emergency situations, and she believed legislative Republicans are making a political power play by passing HB 264.
Policymaking power struggle
This is not the first time the state’s General Assembly and the governor’s office have been at odds with each other.
Chris Cooper, head of the political science and public affairs department at Western Carolina University, said this is the latest chapter in a long story of the struggle for supremacy between the state’s legislative and executive branches.
He said it dates back even to the institution of the veto in 1996. North Carolina was the final state in the country to grant the governor this power, an action he said Democrats in the General Assembly took to try and retain the legislature’s control over the governor’s office.
The struggle reared its head again last year, when Gov. Cooper vetoed SB 105, which also attempted to force the governor to attain the approval of the Council of State before he or she made emergency declarations.
Chris Cooper said this newest effort to limit the governor’s emergency powers wasn’t very different from the last, both coming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even still, he said he believed these two bills were reminiscent of past sparring between the two branches of government.
“The bill is inseparable from the politics of the time and the partisan makeup of each branch of government,” he said.
The impact of partisan polarization
J. Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said HB 264 is yet another example of the polarized nature of politics in North Carolina and the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said an individual’s views on this bill all depend on what side of the political aisle they reside on — Republicans believe the governor has overstepped his bounds and that the bill would serve to reign in executive authority. Democrats believe it is part of the power play legislative Republicans have been waging since they lost the governor’s mansion in 2016.
Bitzer also said the bill was a short-term political battle, with Gov. Cooper being very likely to veto the bill if it passes and with the General Assembly likely being unable to override it if they continue voting along party lines.
However, he said there could be serious consequences if this measure, or others like it, were to pass in the future.
“In the future, if a natural disaster (hopefully not a pandemic of this magnitude) needs quick and decisive action,” Bitzer said in an email, “handcuffing the chief executive and relying on 170 legislators to devise and implement a response may not be the most efficient response to future issues.”
The fate of HB 264 currently lies in the hands of the Senate, where it has resided since the bill was referred there on April 1.
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