RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s governor would have to get formal support from other elected leaders to carry out long-term emergency orders in a measure approved Wednesday by the state House.
The 69-50 party-line result favored Republicans, who’ve chafed under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s directives during the COVID-19 pandemic and drafted the legislation.
Cooper’s orders since the pandemic began in March 2020 caused bars, schools and personal service businesses to close, while restaurants and other retailers have had to scale back capacity. These orders have been slowly eased in recent months, but GOP lawmakers have said the governor had too much power to begin with.
Cooper has defended his actions as protecting the public.
The bill seeks to force Cooper and future governors to request and receive backing for a statewide emergency declaration from a majority of the Council of State. The legislation identifies the Council as the lieutenant governor, attorney general and seven other statewide elected officials. Republicans currently hold six of those positions.
Without the Council’s “concurrence,” the governor’s declaration would expire within seven days. And emergency declarations could be extended for no more than 30 days without additional concurrence by the council.
State law already requires a governor to run some orders past the Council of State. But courts hearing lawsuits challenging Cooper’s powers in responding to the pandemic have nearly always upheld his ability to act on his own due to the public health dangers.
The measure isn’t about battling with Cooper over reopening the state, House Majority Leader John Bell told his colleagues during debate, but rather about diffusing power in North Carolina’s form of government.
“North Carolinians deserve confidence that the unprecedented restrictions placed on their families and businesses are the result of bipartisan consensus, not the absolute power of one man,” House Rules Chairman Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican, said in a news release after the vote.
House Democrats said on Wednesday that a statewide elected governor is the person who should have direction over an emergency response and must have the flexibility to respond to circumstances. They said Cooper has done a good job and his actions have saved lives.
“Now is not the time to change course,” said Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat. “Now is not the time to begin to play political football … simply because we disagree with some of the decisions of the governor.”
The bill now goes to the Senate. Cooper vetoed a similar measure addressing his emergency powers last July. The majorities in the House and Senate aren’t veto-proof.