Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Right-Sizing Expectations about Gubernatorial Power in North Carolina

By Christopher Cooper

Last Saturday at the Ace Speedway, Lt. Governor Mark Robinson revealed the worst kept secret in North Carolina politics: he's running for Governor.

Journalists from across the state and country took note of Robinson’s announcement and rightly articulated why it might be the most watched gubernatorial election in the country, come 2024. The subtext of these articles is that the Governor of North Carolina matters.

And the governor of North Carolina does matter. Article II of the North Carolina Constitution gives the governor one power ("The Executive power of the Sate shall be vested in the Governor") and eleven specific duties including appointment power, recommending a budget, administrative reorganization, and reconvened sessions (one of these duties is that "the Governor shall reside at the seat of government of this state." so, it's really more like 10 duties). The Governor also has the power to veto bills and perhaps most importantly, is viewed as the leader of the state. Like EF Hutton, when the North Carolina Governor talks, people listen. 

In terms of electoral politics, the 2024 North Carolina gubernatorial election will matter as well. Twenty-six of the nation’s governors are Republicans, twenty-four are Democrats. Although governors don't vote together like a legislature, the red/blue map matters for more than just keeping score. In terms of the American South, only North Carolina, Kentucky, and Louisiana have Democratic governors, and the Louisiana Governors mansion is likely to move into Republican hands later this year. The 2024 North Carolina gubernatorial election will tell us a lot about the viability of the Democratic party in the American South.

While there is no doubt that the upcoming gubernatorial election and the occupant of the office matters, astute observers of North Carolina politics will need to keep these facts in their minds alongside a seemingly contradictory idea: compared to other Governors, the North Carolina Governor is extremely weak. 

In 1776, a delegate to the North Carolina constitutional convention noted that the original state constitution gave the Governor "just enough power to sign the receipt for his own salary." Although we retired that Constitution during Reconstruction and have had two more in the meantime, the sentiment remains largely true: the North Carolina governor does not have many formal powers.

The sine qua non of gubernatorial power is the veto. Without it, governors have no formal power to stop legislation. North Carolina Governors, like all governors, do have veto power, but they did not get it until 1996--87 years after the rest of the country (note: New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii were all admitted to the Union after 1909, but all gave the governor veto power from their inception).

All vetoes are not created the same, however. The North Carolina governor has veto power over most legislative action but their veto does not apply to redistricting, local bills or Constitutional Amendments--three areas that are of great importance to public policy.  North Carolina is also one of just six states that does not give the governor line item veto power. And, in perhaps the biggest irony not identified by Alanis Morissette, the state legislator who drew up the bill that gave the North Carolina Governor a weak veto was a Nash County legislator named Roy Cooper.  

In terms of the budget, the governor is required to "prepare and recommend to the General Assembly a comprehensive budget..." but as a legislator once told me, "the Governor's budget is extremely valuable. After all, where else are you going to find a cheap doorstop when you need one?" The governor's budget can be important to set the tone and begin negotiation, but in terms of policy teeth, it's about as fierce as a geriatric basset hound.

Then there's appointment power. In most states governors have vast power to appoint a variety of positions in state government. Until 2018, the North Carolina Governor could appoint ~1500 people to various positions--that placed North Carolina somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of state appointment power. In 2018, the General Assembly reduced that number to 300, a change that led to one of my favorite Rob Christensen lines, "North Carolina's governors are on their way to becoming a potted plant." Later in the same piece, Christensen suggested that while Arnold Schwartanegger was Governor of California, "the appropriate actor for North Carolina governor might be Pee Wee Herman, Sheldon Cooper, or Woody Allen"--not exactly a powerful trio. And this was before recent bills calling for an even further reduction in gubernatorial power.

In sum, pay attention to the North Carolina gubernatorial election; the office and its occupant are extremely important for the future of the state and the partisan balance in American politics. But also remember that compared to other states, the North Carolina governor is extremely weak. So, when any candidate promises what they will do when they're elected, ask yourself whether they have that power.


Dr. Christopher Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, where he serves as director of WCU's Public Policy Institute. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu.