NC House takes party line vote to limit governor's powers

Published April 1, 2021

By Lynn Bonner

The NC House passed a bill that would limit governors’ powers by requiring consensus from other statewide elected officials after declaring a statewide emergency.

House Republicans argued that no one person should have the power to indefinitely shut down businesses and schools, while Democrats said that an executive has to take decisive action when lives are at stake.

House bill 264  passed the House 69-50, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats voting against it. 

The bill would require a governor to get consensus from the Council of State for statewide emergency actions to last for more than seven days. Extensions would also require Council of State consensus. Extensions could not last more than 30 days.

The Governor, Lt. Governor, the Secretary of State, the Commissioners of Agriculture, Labor, and Insurance, the state Auditor, state Treasurer, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Attorney General are on the Council of State.

Republicans have objected to Gov. Roy Cooper’s use of emergency powers in the pandemic, saying his actions were too harsh. Republicans attempted last year to overrule Cooper’s decisions with bills that would have opened bars, bowling alleys, gyms, and other venues. They also passed bills last year similar to the bill the House passed Wednesday.

Cooper vetoed Senate bill 105 last year, and the Senate did not have the votes to override Cooper’s veto.

Former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest last year sued Cooper over his use of emergency powers. Forest, a Republican, ran against Cooper for the governorship last year. Forest dropped the lawsuit after a Superior Court judge ruled against him. The pandemic and how to handle it was the central issue in last year’s governor’s race with Forest saying he would lift Cooper’s mandate for people to wear masks in public.

“If this bill had been law when the pandemic started, we would have never had the mask mandate and I believe we would have lost thousands more people,” said Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat.

Republicans do not have veto-proof majorities in the House or Senate.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, a Chocowinity Republican and the bill’s main sponsor, is a vocal objector to the state mask mandate. Last year, he said from the House floor that he would not wear a mask no matter what Cooper said.

Kidwell posted a photo on his Facebook page of him and other officials, none wearing masks, taking the oath of office at an entertainment venue in New Bern earlier this year, when COVID-19 cases were climbing.

“We all know this pandemic has become a political football on several sides,” said Rep. Amos Quick III, a Greensboro Demorat. Some countries are now seeing rising COVID-19 case numbers and returning to greater restrictions, he said.

“This is not the time to strip the governor of any power,” he said. “This is time to band together as North Carolinians because we’re not out of the woods yet.”

House Majority Leader John Bell, a Goldsboro Republican, said other states, including Kansas, Ohio, and New York have reconsidered how much power a governor should hold in an emergency.

“Encourage bipartisan consensus regardless of who’s governor,” Bell said.

Republicans rejected Fayetteville Democrat Billy Richardson’s suggestion that the bill be changed to require consultation rather than consensus.