RALEIGH - Gov. Pat McCrory needed little time to sign into law Friday one of two controversial Republican-sponsored bills that strips some powers from the executive branch.

The General Assembly's website shows that McCrory signed SB 4 moments after it gained concurrence in the Senate following a 62-27 approval along party lines in the House.

House Bill 17 was approved today by a 24-13 vote in the Senate. The House quickly concurred and sent the bill to McCrory, who has received it but not taken action as of 3:50 p.m.

Neither McCrory or his office has made a public or social media comment about signing SB 4. It is possible he may be waiting for final approval of HB 17 before making a public comment.

However, his quick decision on SB 4 took away what may have been the last piece of suspense and unfinished business to his contentious four-year term.

Former Govs. Jim Hunt and Jim Martin expressed concerns Thursday about SB 4 and House Bill 17 regarding the removal of some governor authority.

Several Democrats restated their viewpoint that the fourth special session was called in an unconstitutional manner.

The Senate passed SB 4 by a 30-16 margin.

SB 4 makes significant changes to the state and county elections boards, and would return the state Supreme Court to partisan races. The bill also would combine the state elections board with the campaign finance, lobbying and ethics commissions into one state agency.

Gov.-elect Roy Cooper weighed in on both bills Thursday, which Republican legislative leaders have acknowledged are aimed at having them become state law before Cooper takes office Jan. 1.

“Regardless of whether any of this legislation passes, I will use all of our tools, and we have a lot, to lead this state in the right direction,” Cooper said.

“If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they will see me in court, and they don’t have a very good track record there.”

The nearly two-hour debate on SB 4 was interrupted by another round of public protest in the House gallery. Protesters also halted the Senate debate on HB 17, yelling "shame" on the legislators.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, ordered the gallery cleared during the debate on whether to make the state Supreme Court races partisan again. At lease 20 individuals were arrested by state capital police and taken away in plastic handcuffs.

The House approved HB 17 by a 70-36 margin. 

House Bill 17 would:

  • Alter how the UNC Board of Trustees and state Board of Education members are appointed, taking authority away from the executive branch;
  • Require the advice and consent of the Senate for governor appointments as state department heads; and
  • Reduce the number of exempted state employees from 1,500 back to 300 — the same level as in the months before Gov. Pat McCrory was elected. A Senate amendment would raise the number to 400.

A third controversial bill, House Bill 3, which focuses on a broad range of regulatory reform, did not advance out of committee. Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, said the two chambers could not reach enough compromise for action.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said Wednesday that the justification for the bills comes from “the General Assembly looking to reassert its constitutional authority in areas that may have been previously delegated to the executive branch.”

Lewis said Friday he is proud of the expanded elections boards that it brings bipartisanship to the boards.

“If the question is important enough for these quasi-judicial boards to act, there should be bipartisan support for the action,” Lewis said.

He said having the legislature appoint half of the state and county boards is appropriate given that branch “is the branch closest to the people.”

“There is no hidden dagger in this,” Lewis said when discussing the combination of the state board with three commissions or that Republicans would have the chairman of the state and county boards in even election years.

Lewis said he did not believe having an even number on the state and county elections boards would lead to stalemate and gridlock in issues such as the legal challenges to the Durham County ballots in the governor’s race

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, said the reason that Democrats are protesting making the state Supreme Court partisan is that they realize more N.C. voters have supported Republican appeals court judges than Democrat.

Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, said it is clear that the majority of North Carolinians did not request this fourth special session and drastic changes to the elections and court systems.

“At some point, we’re going to have to give up some of our power back to the power,” Hall said. “We are responsible to the people, and not the people responsible to us.”

Rep. William Richardson, D-Cumberland, said that “appearances matter” in terms of how the legislature is being perceived statewide and nationally.

“We woke up this morning with our legislature as national news and newspapers and editorials across the state, and not in a good way," Richardson.

Cooper says legal actions are options

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and a cosponsor of SB 4, said Thursday that restoring partisan affiliation to Supreme Court races “clarifies to voters” the party and political persuasion of the justices, as it is now for the state Appeals Court. Rucho has said the legislation in SB 4 represents unfinished business for him before he retires from the legislature.

Some political analysts have said it is possible that Mike Morgan, a registered Democrat, defeated incumbent justice Bob Edmunds, a registered Republican, because Morgan’s name was listed first on the ballot. Morgan won several right-leaning rural counties in the election. In the state Court of Appeals races, the candidates were identified by party with Republicans listed first.

“I don’t think Gov. McCrory would have done this and I don’t think Gov. Cooper would have done this” when it comes to combining the state elections board with the three commissions, Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, said Thursday when asked about the timing of the legislation.

Mitch Kokai, a policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said the actions being taken by the Republican-controlled legislature may be constitutional since “multiple sections of the constitution permit the General Assembly to make major changes in the way state government agencies operate.”

“It’s unlikely that this idea would be considered at any other time than during the transition from one governor’s administration to another.”

Democratic legislators say SB 4 is an effort to take away Democrats’ ability to govern through state and county elections boards, earned through Cooper’s victory.

Currently, the party of the governor holds a 3-2 majority on the state elections board and a 2-1 majority on county boards.

SB 4 would expand the state board to eight (four Democrats and four Republicans) and county board to four (two Democrats and two Republicans). It also would give the legislature half of the appointments in each case.

Bob Hall, president of Democracy NC, said that “by combining the underfinanced, overworked State Board of Elections with the lobbyist regulation office and ethics commission into one agency, it will collapse under the burden of its workload, with oversight falling even further behind and an expanded opportunity for partisan gridlock in lobbying, ethics and campaign finance regulation.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham, said Thursday it is “clear and transparent” that the decision to call for the fourth session “is to undercut the power and authority of the governor elect before he can take office Jan. 1.”

“It is a power grab to circumvent the will of the people and what voters were investing in with Roy Cooper as the next governor.”

“If Gov. McCrory had won re-election, do you think we would be here now with this legislation? I think not. If this was so important, why wasn’t it addressed during his four years as governor?”

‘Unprecedented’

According to the state Democratic Party, the most egregious piece of legislation is the attempt to make 1,200 McCrory appointees as career state employees with as little as 12 months on the job.

“The legislature is trying to violate the will of the people by declaring that Gov.-elect Cooper will only be able to declare 300 state employees exempt,” state Democratic Party spokesman Jamal Little said Wednesday.

The language in HB 17 that would require the consent of the Senate for the governor’s state department chief appointments “is an unprecedented infringement on the discretion given to North Carolina’s governors to pick their own cabinets,” Little said.

HB 17 also would remove the governor from the appointment process for the state universities, reducing the trustee boards to 13 members — eight appointed by the UNC Board of Governors and two each by the House speaker and Senate president pro tem; and the student body president in an ex officio manner.

It would take away the governor’s two appointees to each university’s board.

Rep. William Richardson, D-Cleveland, said Thursday the pace of debate on HB 17 “was moving too fast to give the legislation the proper public scrutiny” that it would receive during a full session.

“Given that the legislature is under the scrutiny of the federal courts, to move forward with this legislation, that takes away powers from the governor, is just bad policy.”

Cooper said that while “most people might think that this is a partisan power grab, but it is really more ominous.”

Cooper said the attempt to control governor appointments of state department heads represents “a push for more corporate tax cuts and loopholes paid for by tax increases on the middle class and on small businesses ... to weaken protections for air and water and an attempt to hurt renewable energy ... to hurt public health by trying to stop Medicaid expansion and expansion of mental health.

“We don’t look good to our people here in North Carolina, or to the rest of the country when laws are passed hastily, with little discussion, in the middle of the night,” Cooper said. “Witness the disaster of House Bill 2, which was passed in the same way. This has got to stop.”

Rep. Chris Sgro, D-Guilford, raised Thursday the specter of transgender restroom House Bill 2 in raising concerns about the accelerated pace of debating SB 4 and HB 17, “giving cause for unintended consequences.”

“And as you know so well, there were unintended consequences with another rushed bill, and the state is still paying the price from that bill.”

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rcraver@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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