As I write, the North Carolina Senate has just voted to override Governor McCrory’s vetoes of bills that required drug tests for applicants for some welfare programs and to ease restrictions on employers checking some applicants in the E-verify system. The NC House previously voted to override both vetoes.
Since the governor announced that he vetoed both bills, there has been a concerted effort to frame the vetoes and the override votes as a test of McCrory’s leadership in the state. Many pundits have opined that McCrory has been steamrolled by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and that his use of the veto and his public relations campaign to uphold the vetoes was an attempt to regain some stature and power with both chambers. Republican strategist Carter Wrenn even went so far as to say that McCrory “looks weak.”
This frame, however, oversimplifies and over-personalizes the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. There is little doubt that governors often differ from legislators about policy issues, even members of their own political party. It is worth recognizing, however, that the relationship between the executive and legislative branches is not always about who is most powerful and about strategies to gain and maintain power. There are significant institutional differences between the branches that partially explain why a governor may veto legislation, even when it is unlikely that the veto will be sustained.
First, the governor represents the entire state, not just a small geographic area. The immigration bill that the governor vetoed was strongly supported within the agricultural community with many House and Senate members from these districts being among the most vocal supporters of the bill. The governor, however, argued that this bill, as written, could slow economic growth in the state. The governor’s position is understandable as he looks across the state and sees an overall unemployment rate of just under 9 percent, but pockets of unemployment, particularly in high service sector areas and former manufacturing areas that is well into double digits.
Second, the governor must administer all laws, not the General Assembly. The governor has the advantage of having the NC Attorney General on his Council of State. He is privy to legal opinions of the AG, especially with the the drug testing law, that points to future legal challenges about how the law is administered. McCrory even raised the possibility that the bill would not pass constitutional muster and, thus, be voided in the future.
Conflict between the executive and legislative branches of state government is inevitable. This is what separation of powers means. Even when one party controls state government, as do the Republicans in 2013, this does not mean that the veto will go unused. We cannot expect to see Governor McCrory wielding the veto pen as often as Governor Perdue did when she faced a Republican legislator, but we should expect other vetoes in future sessions.
Do these overrides mean that McCrory is politically damaged? Perhaps in the short-run. What people often forget is that the governor has many tools in his toolbox beyond the legislative veto. He has the bully pulpit that no member of the legislature has. McCrory has state employees at his disposal to administer the laws and programs. Most importantly, he has time on his hands. While every member of the General Assembly is up for reelection in 2014, he is not up for reelection until 2016–an eternity in political time. By this time, two overridden vetoes will be long forgotten by most.