Gov. Bev Perdue has declared repeatedly that she wants to be remembered as North Carolina’s “jobs governor”, but the 2011 legislative session has cemented her place in history for a completely different reason: her vetoes. Perdue has vetoed more legislation than every previous governor combined. A governor previously mocked for never seeming to do anything except attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies and other photo ops has become crucial for protecting the North Carolina Left. Her 15 vetoes have shown the governor has a far more liberal tilt than she tries to project to the public.
The first veto of the 2011 session came in late February, as Republicans scrambled to pre-emptively address the anticipated $2 billion budget hole for the 2011-12 fiscal year. The Balanced Budget Act of 2011 used a variety of measures to utilize pots of money to set aside for the coming budget year, including transferring funds away from economic incentive programs. Perdue objected to these transfers and issued the first veto of the year.
Perdue’s next veto related to the intrusive “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (Obamacare). On March 5, Perdue vetoed HB2, the “Healthcare Freedom Act.” The measure would have allowed North Carolina to join the Florida multi-state lawsuit against Obamacare in challenging its constitutionality. While progressive groups cheered, many stated Perdue’s veto constituted a de facto endorsement of the highly unpopular federal healthcare overhaul. This fact will doubtlessly be used against her during her re-election campaign.
Perdue’s next three vetoes came in the middle of the long session on April 13 and 16. The first veto struck down a reform of the state employee’s health plan, which was quickly reformed and resubmitted to the governor. The second attacked a bill allowing community colleges to opt out of a federal loan program. Community college presidents asked for the legislation in order to curb their fears that their institutions would lose federal money if the default rates on these loans increased.
The third of the trio would foreshadow the budget battle that shook Raleigh two months later. By April, North Carolina had lost its eligibility to receive extended unemployment benefits for many of its unemployed. Republicans quickly passed legislation changing the formula to calculate the unemployment rate, keeping checks flowing to North Carolina’s considerable numbers of jobless citizens. However, a provision in the bill would have enacted a continuing resolution if the budget was not passed by June 30. The continuing resolution would have set spending at 87 percent of the amount contained in Perdue’s budget proposal, until a final budget bill was finalized. Perdue vetoed this legislation over her objection to the continuing resolution.
The unemployment benefits extension fight continued into the budget debate. Perdue later issued an executive order of dubious legality restoring the funds, just as Republicans were about to pass a budget doing the same thing.
North Carolina’s budget was in shambles at the start of the biennium. The economic downturn had cratered tax revenue, federal stimulus dollars had dried up, and the previous General Assembly had used many of the one-time fund transfer and other gimmicks to temporarily paper over budget holes. A temporary sales tax increase was due to expire, and Republicans refused to consider extending the tax they had explicitly campaigned against.
Nevertheless, Perdue presented a budget that retained most of the tax increase. Republicans countered with House and Senate versions of a budget that reduced taxes on small businesses, allowed the sales tax increase to expire, and spent less than the governor’s proposal.
Negotiations with five moderate Democrats produced a compromise budget that preserved Teacher Assistant funding and cut the difference between the governor’s budget and the GOP’s to only $200 million. The compromise legislation passed by veto proof margins in both the Senate and House.
When liberal groups slammed the proposed budget bill, the governor’s office hinted at her disapproval of the legislation, so it came as little surprise when she issued the state’s first-ever veto of the state budget.
The so-called “Party of Five” moderate Democrats held firm despite enormous pressure from their own party, and soon joined with House and Senate Republicans to counter Perdue’s historic veto with their own history-making event: the first budget veto override.
In the rushed final weeks of the session, Republicans passed reams of legislation, much of it Republican priorities stymied by previous Democratic majorities. By the June 14 session adjournment, Republicans had placed over 200 bills on her desk. Perdue, while still attacking the budget, declared that she had her veto stamp ready. She had ten days to either sign, ignore, or veto the bills.
Perdue quickly used her stamp on Senate Bill 727, the “No Dues Check Off for School Employees Act”. The act ended the NCAE’s ability to use the state to collect automatic dues from members’ paychecks.
Next, on June 23, came House Bill 351, the “Restore Confidence in Government Act,” which sought to prevent voter fraud by requiring photo ID at the polling place. Despite consistent polling that revealed well over 70 percent of North Carolinians favored the measure, Perdue listened to her liberal allies and vetoed the legislation.
Senate Bill 33, Medical Liability Reforms, which capped non-economic awards in medical liability lawsuits to $500,000, was vetoed on June 24. Perdue claimed to be in favor of malpractice reform, but wanted language expanding exceptions to the cap.
Perdue utilized her stamp twice on June 27. In a move that surprised few, Perdue blocked House Bill 854, the “Woman’s Right to Know Act”, which required women considering abortion to listen to a standard set of information about abortion, view an ultrasound, and then wait 24 hours before making a decision. Perdue claimed the legislation interfered with the doctor-patient relationship (although she apparently had no problem with Obamacare’s many onerous intrusions). Perdue also vetoed House Bill 482, “Water Violations Wavers,” claiming constitutional issues.
Perdue waited until June 30 to issue her verdicts on the remaining 11 bills left on her desk. Four of them did not meet her approval. Senate Bill 496, which altered some provider requirements for the state’s Medicaid program, and Senate Bill 532, which altered unemployment benefit requirements and moved the Employment Security Commission to the Department of Commerce, were vetoed for supposedly violating state and federal laws on eligibility requirements for these programs.
Senate Bill 709, the “Energy Jobs Act,” (the “fracking” bill) was vetoed because the Governor felt it intruded on her executive authority, but she issued executive orders accomplishing many of the legislation’s goals.
The most surprising veto of the day was Senate Bill 781, the “Regulatory Reform Act.” This legislation was a major priority for the North Carolina business community, as it cut back on the regulatory authority of state agencies and made the rulemaking process more transparent. SB 781 had looked destined for the governor’s signature, as she had championed the need for regulatory reform. However, the governor vetoed the bill for moving some authority from state agencies into the Department of Administration.
In her veto messages, Perdue claimed to have supported the goals behind all four pieces of legislation and urged lawmakers to alter the bills. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), however, did not buy Perdue’s explanations stating:
“Not so long ago, Gov. Perdue claimed to champion several of the issues she rejected. An indecisive, politically-desperate politician trying to cater to her base, she now stands squarely with fringe environmental groups and liberal special interests in opposing the job-creating sector of North Carolina’s economy.”
Without the cover of a Democratic majority in the General Assembly, Perdue has had to choose between pleasing her base and adhering to the views of a state that leans towards social and economic conservatism.
Perdue has chosen to veto major pieces of legislation when they threaten her base, such as the budget, abortion legislation, and changes to election laws. Her vetoes of regulatory reforms, unemployment changes, and other bipartisan legislation, even when prefaced with statements of support for the legislations’ intentions, have aggravated an already rough relationship with Republicans, especially when they view the vetoes as concessions to liberal interest groups.
Gov. Perdue has consistently been ranked as one of the weakest incumbent governors in the nation, with low approval ratings. However, her approval ratings have ticked up recently as more Democrats begin to appreciate her veto power. It remains to be seen if Perdue’s use of the veto stamp will continue to bolster her image on the left without harming the moderate image she needs to win re-election.