The state House voted 79-36 and – minutes later – the state Senate voted 32-15 to override Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a bill aimed at discouraging undercover investigations of farm and workplace conditions.
Opponents call the measure an “ag-gag” bill and say it doesn’t offer enough protections for whistleblowers. Supporters argue it’s needed to protect businesses.
While that bill now becomes law within a week of the veto, the House delayed a separate override vote on a bill to exempt magistrates from performing marriages. Republican leaders wouldn’t say when they’ll take a vote or if they have enough support to override the governor, but the item appears on Thursday’s calendar under the heading “unfinished business.”
Wednesday’s override votes on the workplace bill showed minimal support among Republicans for McCrory’s position. Only three GOP legislators each in the Senate and House voted against the override. Meanwhile, 12 House Democrats and three Democratic senators voted in favor of the bill.
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The bill will create a recourse in civil court for business owners to sue employees who use their positions to secretly take photographs or shoot video in their workplace. It could also be used to sue workers who steal data, documents or merchandise; it’s aimed at small-time thieves and corporate spies.
Employers could sue for punitive damages of $5,000 a day in addition to compensation for actual damages.
Rep. John Szoka, a Fayetteville Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said McCrory’s concerns are unfounded. “I don’t want to discourage any good employees of any industry from reporting illegal activities to the proper authorities,” he said. “I think we can all agree the proper authorities are law enforcement and state and federal regulatory agencies – and not the media and not private special interest organzations.”
Much of the focus of the bill has been on its so-called “ag-gag” effect, which refers to laws intended to muzzle private undercover investigations by animal welfare groups, reporters or others. Several of the country’s leading animal welfare organizations fought to defeat the bill and then to encourage a veto, including a $50,000 TV ad campaign by the Humane Society of the United States. Others who publicly criticized the bill include the AARP.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, said the bill has been improved but remains problematic. “It started out a lot worse, but the fact of the matter remains – an individual who discloses illegal activity at his place of work becomes liable to penalties in this bill,” she said.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report