Bill seeking to limit North Carolina governor’s emergency powers advances

Published 2:15 pm Wednesday, March 17, 2021

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House Republicans advanced a measure on Tuesday that requires North Carolina’s governor to obtain formal support from other elected leaders to enforce long-term statewide emergency orders.

A state House judiciary committee voted for the legislation, which marks another response by GOP legislators to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders since his March 2020 emergency declaration due to COVID-19. His directives closed school buildings, fitness centers and bars and restricted mass gatherings. Republicans and some allies have said Cooper has wielded too much individual power during the pandemic.

The bill would require the governor to seek and receive backing for a statewide emergency declaration from a majority of the Council of State. The legislation identified the council as the lieutenant governor, attorney general and seven other statewide elected officials. Republicans currently hold six of those positions.

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If the governor doesn’t receive the council’s “concurrence,” the declaration would expire within seven days, under the bill. Otherwise, declarations cannot be extended without the council’s support, and they can’t go beyond 30 days without further concurrence.

While state law already requires a governor to run some orders past the Council of State, courts have nearly always upheld Cooper’s ability to act unilaterally during the pandemic due to the public health dangers. Last July, Cooper vetoed a bill somewhat similar to the one being considered.

Decisions on emergency orders need the perspectives of a variety of leaders, said Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Surry County Republican supporting Tuesday’s bill. “We need that diversity, and that’s what that bill is about,” Stevens said.

But committee Democrats opposed to the measure said voters believe such emergency decisions should rest with the governor.

“I feel like the executive branch is where the buck stops,” said Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. Her father is former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt.

The bill needs to clear one more committee before going to the House floor.