As the COVID-19 pandemic surges on, North Carolina Republicans are attempting to limit the governor’s ability to address it. Again.
This time, they’ve buried it nearly 300 pages into the state budget.
A provision in the proposed budget would change state law to require agreement from the Council of State within 10 days of the governor issuing an executive order during a state of emergency. If approved, the order would expire 45 days later, unless the General Assembly decides to extend it.
But if the Council of State doesn’t approve the order or the General Assembly doesn’t extend it, then too bad — the provision also says that the governor “shall not issue a substantially similar executive order arising from the same events that form the basis to issue the initial executive order.”
The Council of State has 10 members, a majority of whom are Republican. The General Assembly, of course, also has a Republican majority.
Limiting the emergency authority of the governor has been a primary mission for Republicans since Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide emergency executive order addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Many Republicans don’t like that Cooper required masks. They don’t like that he implemented gathering restrictions. And they especially don’t like that he shut down schools and businesses.
This isn’t just happening in North Carolina. Across the nation, Republican lawmakers are attempting to rein in the authority of public health agencies and governors who have exhibited what they consider to be an overreach of power — severely limiting their ability to manage the coronavirus resurgence and future emergencies. Lawmakers in at least 46 states have introduced legislation relating specifically to legislative oversight of gubernatorial or executive actions during the COVID-19 pandemic or other emergencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But that’s nothing new. Republicans in the General Assembly have tried to limit Cooper’s powers since he was elected in 2016, sometimes in crafty ways. By putting this provision in the budget, Republicans seem to be trying to corner Democrats and Cooper, who might be reluctant to veto an otherwise important piece of legislation.
We’ve said it before: a governor’s powers should have limits. Even in a state of emergency, Cooper shouldn’t be able to wield unlimited power for an unlimited time. After a fixed period set by statute, the legislature should be able to end or modify those powers.
But this provision goes too far in the other direction. Yes, an overly powerful executive can be dangerous. But an overly muted one doesn’t bode well, either. In North Carolina, the governorship is historically a relatively weak office. Unlike ours, some governors have line-item veto, and others control administration spending, which in North Carolina is done by the legislature. If it were up to Republican lawmakers, it would be even weaker.
Perhaps, as Republicans have pointed out, the governor shouldn’t have the authority to act unilaterally for more than a year. But 10 days — or even 45 — isn’t enough time to adequately address some crises, let alone one as critical as COVID. The last thing North Carolina needs is political gridlock in the early stages of an emergency.
How much power a governor should have — or at least how long he should have it — is a debate worth having, and we encourage lawmakers to have it. But, as Cooper has pointed out, the middle of a pandemic might not be the best time to make changes to a governor’s emergency powers. Nor is the state budget the place to do it.