McCrory fires back after Senate completes veto overrides

Posted September 4, 2013 9:22 a.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2013 6:44 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Pat McCrory criticized lawmakers Wednesday for their decisions to override his only two vetoes of the session, saying he won't carry out one new law and will try to find ways to work around the other.

The state Senate completed the override of two vetoes in quick fashion Wednesday morning, handing McCrory political losses on a pair of high-profile bills that garnered all the more attention because of the governor's objections. The House overrode both vetoes Tuesday, so the measures are now law despite the governor's objections.

Senate debate on both bills was sparse, with nobody speaking against the overrides.

One vetoed measure requires drug testing and criminal background checks for applicants to certain welfare programs. Those applying for federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, a cash assistance program, would have to undergo both background checks and drug screenings under the bill. Applicants for food stamps would have to undergo only background checks, including fingerprinting.

"We don't want hard-working North Carolinians to be supporting illegal drug use," Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, said. 

The vote to override was 34-10. If all 50 senators had been present and voting, it would have only required 30 votes to override the governor's objections.

The second measure overridden by lawmakers aims to help farmers hire seasonal labor. It extends from 90 days to nine months the amount of time that an employee could work without undergoing a background check in the E-Verify system, which is meant to ensure workers are legal U.S. residents or citizens.

"This is the right thing to do for our (agriculture) community," Sen. Brent Jackson said.

The vote to override was 39-5.

McCrory used an appearance at the State Board of Education to announce that his Department of Health and Human Service wouldn't take steps to enforce drug testing, which he called an "unfunded mandate" because lawmakers didn't provide money to carry it out. 

The budget does designate funding for the testing, but a spokeswoman for the governor said the funding is insufficient. 

On the E-Verify law, he said he would ask his aides "to explore all legal and executive authority to ensure the letter and spirit of our nation’s immigration law is followed in this state," noting that he doesn't want North Carolina residents to lose jobs to people in the country illegally.

McCrory also criticizing lawmakers for passing the two bills in the first place, as well as other legislation approved late in the session. Both he and the majority of the General Assembly are Republican, but they have tangled over a number of issues this year.

"One part of our (state government) culture that did not change was passing some flawed legislation during the last hours of session with little debate, understanding or transparency," the governor said in the statement. "Too much education policy was slipped into the budget bill, causing serious concerns, especially from our teachers and educators. Executive branch concerns over long-term operational costs were ignored by passing bills with good intentions but unintended consequences and overriding vetoes on drug testing and immigration."

Senate leaders quickly took McCrory to task for his decision to ignore the new drug testing law.

"It does concern me because it seems a little instrument called the state constitution is being ignored," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.

Likewise, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said McCrory cannot simply sidestep the constitution.

"All governors, without regard to party, swear an oath to uphold the constitution. We expect Gov. McCrory to perform his constitutional duty to enforce the law," Berger said in a statement.

Costly 'disagreement'

Earlier, the two senators said they simply had a disagreement with the governor over these two bills.

"A lot of us didn't understand why those two bills were picked for vetoes," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. He said constituents in his area were pressing for both bills, particularly the E-verify measure.

"I've never seen the farmers in my district so united on anything," he said. 

“Despite some divisive, partisan rhetoric from special interest groups, the truth is most bills pass the General Assembly with broad, bipartisan support,” said Berger, R-Rockingham. “These two bills are no different – they are a product of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate working together to make a positive and lasting impact on our state.”

The two-day special session called to consider the veto overrides cost North Carolina taxpayers $110,000.

"It does seem like a waste of money. It does," Apodaca said.

"It's an awful lot of money to spend and come back and discuss bills which their fate and conclusion should have been known in advance," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "It was a bad political judgment call. Certainly, the Republicans in the General Assembly have given him his marching orders, and I think he now knows who's in control."

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said McCrory is trying to assert some control himself.

"The General Assembly has really been the engine room, and he's sort of been a bystander for a lot of the time," Taylor said. "I don't think it hurts for him to say, 'I am a leader, not just a follower.'"

Apodaca said lawmakers worked closely with McCrory's staff on the drug-testing bill.

"They changed it considerably from what it started out being, and then it was vetoed," he said.

When asked what he would tell McCrory about paying for the testing requirement, he said, "Well, I guess you could cut a few salaries and find the money to put into this program," referring to recent stories about big pay raises granted to relatively young administration hires.

Outside the legislature, there was little political push against the E-Verify measure. While some sheriffs and conservative groups asked lawmakers to sustain McCrory's vetoes, farm groups were much more vocal. In addition to Republican lawmakers, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, also a Republican, pushed for an override.

The drug testing and background check bill had a bit more opposition, as progressive groups sided with the governor.

“It’s very disappointing that the legislature put so much effort into passing this cruel and constitutionally suspect bill. H.B. 392 does nothing to help those who test positive for drug use get treatment, but it does allow the government to conduct costly, unnecessary and unreasonably intrusive searches of North Carolinians who seek public assistance to care for their families," said Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioned McCrory's motives in vetoing both, and they said they were surprised by his lack of communication.

"We certainly want to hear the governor's positions, but we want to do that prior to a showdown vote," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph.