Chaotic Special Session Ends After GOP Passes Curbs On Cooper's Power

Dec 16, 2016

There were more protests and arrests Friday as lawmakers continued their surprise additional special session to limit the powers of Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper.  On party-line votes, both chambers passed SB4, a bill that includes broad election changes.  It was quickly signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory, according to House Speaker Tim Moore.  The legislature also passed HB17, which restricts Cooper's ability to make appointments.  During Senate debate, Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick of Durham, voice rising in anger, said they came to Raleigh to deal with a natural disaster, and instead are witnessing a political disaster.

"You want to know why people are sick and tired of politicians and politics and are growing cynical?  It's because of what we're doing in this chamber today!  People want to have trust.  They want to have confidence.  They want to have transparency.  They want to know there's one set of rules."

Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn of Asheville said it's like watching a "political plague," and took issue with the changes made to oversight of education.

"The level of political influence that you are attempting to assume of the Department of Public Instruction quite frankly scares me, and it should scare everyone who cares about public education.  This bill takes our state to a new low."

Van Duyn and McKissick's full remarks are below.

For the second straight day, there were disruptions and arrests in both chambers as protesters demonstrated to show their frustration.  

Protests disrupted both the House and Senate Thursday.  Multiple arrests were made.  Both the Senate and House passed major legislation that limits the power of Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper.  The Senate passed a bill that includes broad changes to elections, including changing the composition of boards of elections.  The vote was 30-16 and it moves to the House.  Sen. McKissick said the bill was an obvious power grab.

"And tell me how does this bill affect the lives of North Carolinians and make it better?  We need to be addressing thing that impact quality of life.  Education, schools, jobs that need to be returned to this state."

Not long after that Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest called for the gallery to be cleared of spectators due to disruptions, and loud boos and chants ensued.  Protesters chanted "You work for us" as they were escorted out.  Their anger continued outside and the Republicans said it was too noisy to continue, and called a 30 minute recess.  Hear that full debate leading up to the interruptions below.

The disruptions extended later on the House floor during debate of HB17, a bill stripping Cooper of many appointment powers.  The House was delayed nearly a half hour as protesters were escorted out.  According to multiple reporters on the scene, the number of arrests were at least 20.  After a long debate, the House passed the bill 70-36.  It now goes to the Senate.  Various moments from the debate are below.

Earlier in the day, North Carolina Governor-elect Roy Cooper blasted efforts by Republican lawmakers to limit his power during a special session that had been called for the purpose of disaster relief.  Cooper called the move "unprecedented"  "This is about thwarting the governor's ability to move us forward" on issues like the economy and education and clean energy.  "We look bad when legislation gets passed in the middle of the night."  About the bills, Cooper said pointedly, "If I believe these are unconstitutional, they will see me in court.  And they don't have a good track record there."  Cooper's comments came one day after a chaotic day at the General Assembly that started out much differently.

The North Carolina House and Senate unanimously passed a bill to help recovery efforts for the wildfires in western North Carolina as well as Hurricane Matthew relief in the eastern part of the state.  Republican Senate leader Phil Berger then made a surprise announcement for a second special session, a move that outraged state Democrats.  Just minutes before a thrice-extended bill filing deadline passed, a bill emerged that Democrats had been bracing for that would sharply limit the power of Governor-elect Roy Cooper to make appointments.  WRAL's Mark Binker detailed some of the measures of the bill:

  • reduces the number of exempt positions under Cooper's supervision from 1,500 to 300. Exempt positions are those that a governor can hire or fire at will, either because they are managers or because their job is somewhat political in nature. Although former Gov. Bev Perdue had roughly 500 such positions under her control, GOP lawmakers gave Gov. Pat McCrory 1,500 to work with. 1
  • puts the Department of Public Instruction more firmly under the supervision of the superintendent of public instruction, a position elected separately from the governor. Republican Mark Johnson ousted Democrat June Atkinson in this year's election.
  • gives Johnson at least 70 "exempt" positions, beefing up his power in the same way it would trim Cooper's. The bill would also gives the new superintendent more flexibility in managing the state's education budget.
  • removes gubernatorial appointments to the various boards of trustees that run each campus in the University of North Carolina system. Those appointments would be would be transferred to the General Assembly.
  • requires Senate confirmation for gubernatorial cabinet appointments. Although the state constitution allows this, the legislature hasn't exercised this power in recent memory.

The bill was heard in a House rules committee Thursday morning.  Listen below.

Other major legislation to emerge included a 43-page regulatory reform bill co-sponsored by Rep. Chuck McGrady and a 25-page Senate election bill.  It would do a number of different things, many taking power Republicans enjoyed under Governor Pat McCrory away from Democrats.  Binker has a summary of some of those provisions:

  • State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races would be partisan under this bill. Currently, judges for appellate court run in non-partisan contests. Under those nonpartisan rules, Republican Justice Bob Edmunds lost his seat this year to Judge Mike Morgan, a Democrat.
  • The current five-member board of elections would be dismissed and replaced with the sitting members of the state ethics commission. They would remain in place until this summer when a new board would be appointed. The state board was forced to handle a number of unforeseen events sparked by federal court rulings. During the year, it ignored urging from Republican Party officials to limit early voting hours and refused to countenance a number of voting fraud cases brought by the state GOP. 
  • Of the eight member board, half would be appointed by the governor. The remainder would be appointed by the legislative leadership.
  • The new board would alternate the chairmanship between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans would chair the board during even-numbered election years, while Democrats would have that job in off years.
  • Local boards of election, which are currently three member panels, would become four-member boards evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. As with the state board, local boards would alternate the chairmanship. Due to how the chairs alternate, Republicans would head the boards of the state's largest counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg in even-numbered years, which partisan elections take place.
  • The bill restricts the newly created state board from playing any role in drawing new districts. At one point this year, a federal judge contemplated requiring the State Board of Elections to draw new maps for Wake County.
  • The ability to appeal certain cases to the state Supreme Court would be limited under the bill. Instead, some cases would have to be first heard en banc by the full 15 justices of the Court of Appeals before heading to the Supreme Court. This would, in effect, slow the progress of a case to the state's highest court.
  • The bill effectively extends the term of Leo Daughtridge, McCrory's former Secretary of Administration, on the Industrial Commission by six years. It would also allow the McCrory to appoint the chairman of the commission who will serve over the next four years.

The elections bill, Senate Bill 4, got a lengthy discussion during a Senate committee meeting Thursday morning.  Listen below.

A rumored "court packing" measure Democrats feared that would have allowed McCrory to appoint two justices to the NC Supreme Court, which would have reversed the 4-3 majority Democrats just won in November, was not filed by the deadline.  Here are the full lists of Senate and House bills filed.  

Democrats sharply questioned the need for the extra session the House floor, peppering Republican House Speaker Tim Moore with questions about why it was needed.  Some questioned the timing, as a letter calling for the extra session signed by Republicans in the house was dated December 12th, Monday.  Democrats and the media only learned about the move after Berger's announcement.  Rep. Chris Sgro (D-Guilford) received applause in the gallery when he asked Speaker Moor what the cost to the taxpayers would be of staying longer.    

Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County filed a formal protest.

"This is why people don't trust us.  This is why they hate us.  This is why politicians have a 10 percent approval rating, because of this right here... using hurricane relief as the reason to come back to Raleigh to do a lot of things, because you lost an election...by 10,000 votes.  I mean that's why we're here.  We all know what's going to happen next."

Democrats joined in that protest, one by one.  Hear that debate below.

The Disaster Recover Act sailed through both chambers with mostly cordial debate and ended up with unanimous support.  Democrat Senator Ben Clark of Cumberland County fought back tears as he spoke about the needs of the displaced in his community.

"I know one of my constituents reached out to me.  She said, 'I'm trying to find low-cost housing.  Essentially I want a roof over my head.'  I do not want to return to Cumberland County and tell her..... I want to be able to say we've done something."

The bill allocates roughly $200 million in disaster relief.   The largest portion is around $76 million for the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund.  That funding is intended to match federal dollars.  The bill was designated House Bill 2, which brings back to mind the controversial legislation signed in the last special session that earned North Carolina international notoriety.  

The Appropriations Committee debated the bill first Tuesday afternoon.  It began with a 12 minute address by Governor Pat McCrory, who praised lawmakers for coming back into session and asked them to show urgency in passing the bill.  

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) also spoke before the committee.

offered an amendment to the bill dealing with the school calendar.  It would require schools to make up just two days of lost time.  The rest would be forgiven.  It was noted during the debate that some counties missed much more than two days.  When questioned why all days weren't forgiven, McGrady said the amendment represented a compromise between those who wanted all the days forgiven and those who wanted none.  The measure passed.  Some Democrats protested that the bill didn't offer enough help.  But leaders said this would be the first of two expected measures taking up relief, with another expected during the regular session.  The Appropriations committee passed the bill on a voice vote and referred it to the Finance committee.  You can hear the Appropriations committee debate below.

The House finance committee then passed the bill with little discussion.  That audio is below.

It then moved to the full House, which passed the bill by a unanimous 115-0 vote, with similar topics being debated as to the Appropriations committee.  Audio below.

The Senate began taking up the measure Wednesday, first in the Appropriations committee, where it was approved.  Again, Governor McCrory addressed the committee before debate.

The Senate finance committee quickly approved the measure and sent it to the full Senate, which approved the bill 49-0.  That full debate is below.

After the bill was approved, NC Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger made this surprise announcement.

You can track the legislature here.

Correction:  A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Governor Pat McCrory had signed HB17.  He has not.  We apologize for the error.