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Bills on immigration and drug-testing welfare recipients draw McCrory vetoes

RALEIGH Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed his first two bills on Thursday – both minor pieces of legislation on controversial topics that experts say allow the governor to emphasize his independence from both the Republican legislature and a strictly partisan agenda.

The vetoes on bills dealing with immigration and the drug testing of welfare recipients mark the widest fissure yet between McCrory and his GOP allies in the General Assembly. But it is a gap that lawmakers can ignore because they have the votes to easily override due to a Republican majority and significant bipartisan support on both pieces of legislation.

It would be up to the House of Representatives to initiate override votes since both bills originated in that chamber. House Speaker Thom Tillis – a close ally of the governor – said he will talk to members of the GOP caucus in the coming days to see what they want to do.

But Tillis issued a measured statement immediately after the vetoes were announced saying he was disappointed in the governor’s actions. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger could not be reached for comment.

Despite the contentious issues they deal with, the proposed laws were not high-profile bills. One would have allowed social service workers to test welfare applicants for illegal drug use if they had reason to suspect it. The other would have expanded the exemption of seasonal workers from the immigration status check program called E-Verify.

Vetoing the bills tosses bones to those on the left for nixing the drug-testing bill and to those on the right for taking a tough stance on immigration, analysts say.

“These may be subtle signals to both sides of trying to take a more moderate- to middle-of-the-road course,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “But with the level of animosity that’s present now, these may not be big bones for them to chew on.”

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, says the welfare veto portrays the governor as pragmatic – for saying similar bills have not worked in other states – and not mean-spirited. The immigration veto shows he is willing to take a populist stance and antagonize business interests by going after companies that employ illegal immigrants, Taylor said.

“The general message is to the median voter in the state – who is different from the median voter in Republican legislators’ districts – saying, ‘I’ve got some softer edges than those guys. I’m a little bit more compassionate. I’m a little bit more practical,’ ” Taylor said.

The three-page immigration bill, House Bill 786, was a drastically watered-down version of an original bill that would have combined driving permits for people here illegally with stringent provisions to change how immigrants are treated in the criminal justice system. Near the end of session it became just a bill to study those issues for future consideration.

The bill also included new, largely uncontroversial requirements on the state, cities and counties using E-Verify to determine contractors’ immigration status. It also had a provision expanding the exemption from E-Verify for seasonal workers, from the current 90 days to almost nine months.

The seasonal worker exemption is what McCrory hung his veto on, calling it a “loophole that would allow businesses to exempt a higher percentage of their employees from proving they are legal U.S. citizens or residents.” He said it would make it easier to hire illegal immigrants.

“Every job an illegal immigrant takes is one less job available for a legal North Carolina citizen,” McCrory said in a statement his office released.

Executive order issued

The N.C. Chamber had supported the immigration bill in its original form, but after it was amended felt it had been changed too substantially. Gary Salamido, the chamber’s lobbyist, said the business group had no position on the bill that the governor vetoed.

Tillis expressed “regret” over the veto. A candidate for U.S. Senate, Tillis said the bill was a stop-gap measure to address illegal immigration “while we wait for politicians in D.C. to take action.”

The drug-testing legislation, House Bill 392, would have required people applying for the state’s Work First and food stamps programs to be tested if a social worker suspected they might be abusing drugs. It would also have required county social services to make sure applicants didn’t have outstanding felony warrants and weren’t violating probation. They could have also been fingerprinted.

The governor said that could have led to inconsistent enforcement across the state leading to unnecessary government intrusion, and that parts of the bill were unfair and fiscally irresponsible.

“This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse,” McCrory said. “Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction.”

But McCrory said he supported the idea of making sure felony fugitives and parole violators weren’t receiving government assistance. He issued an executive order requiring county social service departments check criminal records, and to come up with recommendations to improve sharing that information with law enforcement.

ACLU praises veto

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Action N.C., which advocates for low-income people, praised the veto. The ACLU noted it had successfully challenged a similar law in Florida, where federal courts deemed it unconstitutional.

“Our state and federal constitutions protect the privacy and dignity of all North Carolinians against unreasonable searches, and all available evidence has shown that welfare applicants are no more likely to use drugs than the general public,” Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU in North Carolina said in a statement.

Tillis said he was disappointed and defended the bill as a safeguard to make sure those on welfare and food stamps were law-abiding citizens.

The bill originally would have required all welfare applicants to take drug tests at their own expense, and be reimbursed only if they tested negative. Those who tested positive would be refused financial aid but referred to drug treatment services.

The final version of the bill limited the drug testing, which swung a large block of Democrats in the House and Senate to support it.

Staff writer Annalise Frank contributed.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576
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