A bill designed to restrict the executive powers of the governor could soon be headed to Gov. Roy Cooper's desk.
House Bill 264, also called the "Emergency Powers Accountability Act," has been a topic of discussion in the legislature since March. It aims to limit Cooper's and future governors' ability to institute emergency powers or declare a state of emergency.
If the legislation is passed, Cooper will no longer be able to unilaterally use his emergency powers. Instead, an agreement would have to be reached between the governor and a majority of the other members of the Council of State.
In March, H.B. 264 passed in the N.C. House of Representatives by a 69-50 majority-Republican vote along party lines. It then went to the Senate, and after several months of limited discussion, was amended and passed on Sept. 8. It was then sent back to the House, where it is currently under consideration.
If the bill passes in the House and is ratified, it will be sent to the governor’s office, where Gov. Cooper can veto it. If he does veto it, he is required to convene a legislative session in which his veto could potentially be overridden by a three-fifths vote in both the House and the Senate.
Currently, even though Republicans hold a majority in both chambers, they fall just short of the number of seats needed to override a veto on their own.
“A veto will not be sustained unless they put it on the calendar on a day when Democrats are absent, for whatever reason,” N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said.
Such a scenario occurred in 2019, when the Republican legislature overrode Cooper's budget veto while some Democratic House members were absent.
N.C. Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said that more absences due to the pandemic could lead to something similar to what happened in 2019.
“There have been more absences during this COVID outbreak than there usually are,” she said.
Republican legislators have not supported Cooper's use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harrison said she believes that public health has become politicized.
In March 2020, Cooper declared a state of emergency in North Carolina. Using his emergency powers, he instituted a stay-at-home order for everyone except essential workers.
One of the Republican sponsors of H.B. 264 is N.C. Rep. Lee Zachary, R-Forsyth, Yadkin, who said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel that he believes that Cooper overstepped his authority by unilaterally declaring a state of emergency.
“Whether one agrees with the governor’s handling of COVID or not, the governor’s usurping of extended power and control over the state, without consulting with or negotiating with the Council of State or legislature, is just not right,” Zachary said.
Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said that he believes Republicans will attempt to push the bill through at an opportune time.
“Because Republicans are so close, particularly in the Senate, to veto override, they will be strategic in when they want to bring the legislation back up to try and override,” he said.
He said he wonders if Democrats will learn from their mistake with the budget bill in 2019.
“The question becomes — have Democrats learned their lesson from the previous time, and will they be cognizant of any attempt to pull a second stunt like this?” he said.
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