When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that there is no constitutional right to abortion, abortion rights advocates worried that North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly might use the court ruling to outlaw the procedure here.
Fortunately for them, there’s something standing in the way: the veto power held by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He opposes a ban on abortion and, thanks to Democratic gains in the 2018 election, Republican lawmakers no longer have the three-fifths majorities in the state House and Senate that are needed to override his veto.
Cooper’s power to block actions by the Republican-led General Assembly shows the value of having a gubernatorial check on wrongheaded and extreme legislation.
It wasn’t always so. In 1996, North Carolina became the last state to give its governor veto power. That power became almost useless between 2012 and 2018 as Republicans held enough votes to override vetoes. The legislature overrode vetoes even by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, rejecting four of his six vetoes, and Republican lawmakers thrashed Cooper during his first two years in office, overriding 23 of his 28 vetoes.
Now, with the Republicans short of override votes, Cooper has used his veto stamp as a crucial brake on legislation. Since 2019, he has issued 43 vetoes; none has been overridden.
You have to wonder what kind of legislation would have made it into law if Democrats had not broken the Republican supermajorities in 2018 and if Cooper had not vigorously used his veto power.
Looking over the governor’s vetoes since 2019, some are technical and others involve fundamental issues, such as voting rights and civil rights. He also rejected a flurry of legislation seeking to reopen businesses or end other public health-related restrictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of those latter bills appear named to make a veto look bad. Cooper rejected the “Free the Smiles Act,” aimed at easing school mask requirements. He also said no to the “Freedom to Celebrate the Fourth of July” bill, which would have allowed parades and fireworks displays in 2020 during a public health state of emergency.
On the Fourth of July bill, Cooper said in his veto message that it’s not patriotic to increase the risk of spreading COVID-19. “Tying the hands of public health officials in a time of pandemic is dangerous, especially when case counts and hospitalizations are rising,” he said.
On more substantial issues, Cooper’s veto messages are a narrative of keeping bad ideas out of the statute books.
In rejecting a 2021 bill that would nullify absentee ballots received after Election Day even if postmarked on or before Election Day, Cooper wrote: “The legislature ironically named this bill ‘The Election Day Integrity Act’ when it actually does the opposite. Election integrity means counting every legal vote, but this bill virtually guarantees that some will go uncounted.”
In August of 2021, the governor turned back legislation that would have repealed the need to have a permit to purchase a pistol. He said, “The legislature should focus on combating gun violence instead of making it easier for guns to end up in the wrong hands.”
The following month Cooper vetoed two race-related bills. One passed after the nationwide George Floyd protests would have made it easier to charge protesters as rioters. The governor wrote: “People who commit crimes during riots and at other times should be prosecuted, and our laws provide for that, but this legislation is unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”
Cooper also vetoed legislation that dictated how teachers should discuss – or avoid discussing – the role of race and racism in the nation’s history. Cooper said, “The legislature should be focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning and investing in our public schools. Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.”
The governor’s veto power is frustrating for Republican lawmakers, especially those with authoritarian tendencies. But these days, it’s especially important.
This safeguard against extremism could slip away again if Republicans regain supermajorities in November. If so, North Carolina laws could take another sharp rightward turn that the governor will be powerless to prevent.