Politics & Government

Overriding their way into N.C. history

Making history took about nine minutes.

The vote last Wednesday by legislators to override Gov. Mike Easley's veto of a law opening state roads to wider boat trailers was the first defeat of a governor's veto in N.C. history, and one meted out in less time than it takes to cook a pizza.

Easley also was the first N.C. governor to use the veto – the authority to reject legislation approved by the General Assembly.

During his two terms, he has given the first demonstrations of the difference the relatively new constitutional power can make in the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of North Carolina's government.

In all, Easley vetoed nine bills and likely will leave office with a score of Easley 8, General Assembly 1. He has wielded the veto sparingly and usually on low-profile legislation, using the constitutional tool more as a safety net than as the shotgun behind the door.

The veto is often portrayed as the governor's weapon in titanic clashes with lawmakers. Easley, though, has used it more to catch minor legislation he sees as dangerously flawed. He then negotiates a way to rework it.

But the veto hasn't been rigorously tested. Not until the governor and legislature come from different parties, or from different wings of the same party, will you witness the strength of the veto.

Easley's nine vetoes included bills awarding financial incentives to Goodyear, altering requirements for teacher certification and appointing new board and commission members – two of whom were dead and five of whom were blocked by law from taking office.

“It serves as a last defense against bad law,” said Franklin Freeman, Easley's legislative liaison.

By contrast, S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, not only can veto bills but also can veto individual spending items in the state budget – a line-item veto. Last year he issued 243 line-item vetoes. The legislature overrode all but 15.

Easley sees the veto largely as a pause button. “I've signed plenty of bills I disagreed with,” Easley said.

He blocked then-House Speaker Jim Black, a Matthews Democrat, and other legislators from giving a vacant state office building in downtown Charlotte to Johnson & Wales University. The gift was intended to satisfy a promised tax incentive that helped lure the school.

“Sometimes a governor has to say, ‘This is bad policy and I just can't put my name on it,'” Easley said.

In the Johnson & Wales case, Easley went further than a veto. He sold the building quickly, before legislators could finish giving it away.

The teacher certification bill allowed schools to hire out-of-state teachers without passing certain tests as long as their home state rated them as “highly qualified.” Easley said that change would have “lowered our standards to the lowest in the country.”

‘Just a waste of time'?

Some legislators say Easley has picked disagreements over small matters, at least some of which could have been avoided by working out the problem before the bill passed. Most vetoes came during the usual cascade of legislation at the end of a session when it's difficult for even lawmakers to know what is in the bills.

In some cases, his administration has fashioned a compromise that differed little from the bill he vetoed. After he vetoed the teachers bill, he still agreed to let schools hire out-of-state teachers under a temporary teaching license.

That's much different, Easley said, than immediately certifying out-of-state teachers.

He vetoed the incentive package for Goodyear Tire & Rubber's Fayetteville plant in part because it set the precedent of awarding incentives to companies already operating in the state instead of those who are creating jobs by expanding or moving into the state.

The compromise he reached included worker protections but gave incentives to both Goodyear and its competitor, Bridgestone Firestone's Wilson plant, raising the cost of the bill from about $40 million to $60 million.

Easley said the compromise injected fairness into the tax breaks, ensuring that any company that qualified could receive funding.

“What he has vetoed I don't think has had any profound effect on the law,” said Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat.

The technical nature of Easley's vetoes grew partly out of Easley's distant but not contentious relationship with the legislature, said John Sanders, former director of UNC Chapel Hill's Institute of Government and a co-author of the current state constitution.

A long-sought power

Until the 1970s, North Carolina's governor could serve only one term and had no veto. He was never guaranteed a seat at the negotiating table.

“North Carolina through the years had often been cited as having the weakest governor in America,” said former Gov. Jim Hunt. During Hunt's first term as governor in the late 1970s, he pushed through legislation to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment allowing governors to run for a second term, and the voters approved it. He became the first governor to be re-elected.

In 1992, Hunt returned for another two terms as governor, during which he nudged the legislature to hold a public vote on a constitutional amendment to create the veto, which passed.

“Some legislators – some kiddingly and some not so kiddingly – have said we shouldn't have done it,” said Freeman, Easley's legislative liaison. He was Hunt's chief of staff when the veto went into effect.

When the legislation setting up veto procedures reached Hunt's desk in 1997, it was the first time an N.C. governor had signed a bill since before the American Revolution.

Lawmakers limited the veto's power when they created it, including giving themselves the ability to override with a three-fifths majority, less than the two-thirds majority required in Congress.

Hunt threatened to use the veto but never did. “Which illustrates one of the significant factors about the veto,” Martin said. “When you have it, you don't have to use it as much. The threat is there, you have bargaining power.”