Lawmakers to governor: The veto-free ride is over

The General Assembly's overwhelming rejection last week of Gov. Mike Easley's most recent veto was a long time coming.

Eleven years, in fact. That's how long legislators have been looking for the right opportunity to say to the governor: Enough.

When they passed a proposed constitutional amendment and voters gave the governor the veto starting in 1997, many lawmakers knew the day would come when they'd be sorry they shared some of their power with a governorship that for years had been judged among the weakest in the land. They had long kept the state's chief executive on a short leash.

Gov. Jim Hunt never wielded the veto, but he used it as a thinly-veiled threat to persuade legislators to do some things and not do others. When Gov. Easley succeeded Jim Hunt, however, it was clear from the outset that the new governor would not have the same close relationship with many legislators as Gov. Hunt had had.

With a more detached leadership style, Gov. Easley was prone to review legislation after the fact – and reject outright bills he did not like. Over the past seven and a half years, Gov. Easley vetoed nine bills.

But the legislature rarely came close to overriding a veto. Compromises were worked out to avoid embarrassing a fellow Democrat, though a number of legislators were itching to override what they perceived as a trigger-happy governor with the veto stamp.

It was not until Gov. Easley vetoed a bill legislative leaders wanted to help the boating industry that the ultimate confrontation arrived. The governor worried – rightly – that allowing wider boats on N.C. highways at nights and on weekend without a special permit would be dangerous. He thought it would result in injuries, possibly deaths. And it surely would scare the daylights out of drivers to see boat loads wider than the highway lane they were rolling down.

So he vetoed the bill, hoping to persuade legislators to compromise on an alternative. Alas, they had no interest in compromise and no patience in returning to Raleigh for even a brief session to reconsider the bill. They convened last Wednesday and took only a few minutes to vote 95-8 in the House and 39-0 in the Senate to override the governor's veto and make the traveling public share highway lanes with a wider boatload.

That's bad public policy and indifferent legislating. But it reflects a long-simmering disaffection for giving the governor more power. And it was a chance for petulant legislators to pluck the feathers of a lame duck governor who had tried, after all, to do the right thing.