RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to override two vetoes issued by Gov. Pat McCrory (R), the first time in state history a Republican-controlled legislature bucked a governor of their own party. The two votes illustrated deep divisions within the state House — and a schism between a rookie, outsider governor and more entrenched members of his own party.
Republicans, who hold overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, largely stuck together to override McCrory’s veto of a bill that would expand drug testing for recipients of welfare and TANF, a state-administered federal assistance program for low-income families.
But a second bill that would have exempted agricultural businesses from the federal e-Verify program drew support from a coalition of urban and suburban Democrats and Republicans who represent agricultural districts, overriding McCrory’s veto by a wide margin. The measure, which needed 70 votes out of the 116 members present to override McCrory’s veto, won 84 votes.
McCrory and his allies, including conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, had painted the bill, H.B. 786, as a loophole that would allow undocumented immigrants to work in North Carolina for up to nine months before they had to submit to the federal e-Verify program. The program checks workers’ Social Security numbers and identities against government databases to verify their eligibility for employment within the United States.
“This is a jobs bill for illegal aliens. That’s exactly what this is,” said state Rep. George Cleveland (R) of Jacksonville, who voted to sustain McCrory’s veto, during a brief debate over the veto. “We’re going to become a magnet for illegal aliens exactly as we were” in the 1990s and 2000s.
“It’s opening up too many doors there for illegal employment,” Forest, the lieutenant governor and conservative activist, said in an interview.
But proponents of the bill said it would have given agricultural businesses, including small farms, a break from the red tape that accompanies a federal program like e-Verify. “It expresses the confidence in our farmers, and it gives them a stable workforce,” said state Rep. Larry Hall, a Democrat from Durham who voted with the overwhelming majority to override the veto.
The veto overrides will cap an aggressive session for the Republican-led state legislature that included major votes to reduce the state’s corporate income tax, revise election administration laws by cutting the number of early voting days and require voters to show identification at their polling place, and revise formulas for determining the flow of transportation funding. The Senate, where both bills passed by wide margins earlier this year, is expected to override the vetoes in votes beginning early on Wednesday, said Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the state Senate.
North Carolina governors have only had the power to veto legislation since 1997, when then-Gov. Jim Hunt pushed a veto measure through the state legislature. McCrory is the first Republican to hold the state’s highest office since then.
Still, for McCrory, who publicly and privately lobbied members to sustain his vetoes, the votes in the House and Senate represent a short-term defeat, and a long-term opportunity. State legislative leaders have driven much of the agenda this year, as the governor, who took office in January, has staffed up and begun to lay out his legislative priorities.
On one hand, after the Senate votes, he will have lost two very public votes on his vetoes. On the other, he can now regain some good will among conservatives, who voted to sustain his veto on e-Verify, while avoiding alienating some African Americans, who supported his veto of the welfare bill. And in both cases, he can use the vetoes to distance himself from the state legislature, which advanced controversial conservative legislation and saw its approval rating plummet in the process.
The e-Verify measure, in particular, is emblematic of the divergent interests Republican state legislators face in a swing state like North Carolina. The measure enjoyed broad support from the business and agriculture community, which has thrown its support behind Republicans who won control of the state legislature in 2010 after years of backing Democrats who seemed to enjoy a perpetual majority. Those who backed the bill said it would provide the Tarheel State, where the economy depends on agriculture, with migrant workers who could harvest crops.
But conservative activists and immigration hardliners opposed the bill because they said it provided a loophole that would allow undocumented immigrants to earn a paycheck in North Carolina for a much longer time period than under existing law.
The contentious relationship between the business community and the immigration hardliners in North Carolina is a microcosm of the national immigration debate. Republican senators who backed the bipartisan Gang of Eight proposal earlier this year largely cited the value a pathway to citizenship would provide to agriculture employers in their states.
Meanwhile, House Republican leadership — where the majority conference is dominated by conservative members who respond to pressure from activists at home who oppose a pathway to citizenship — has refused to act on the Senate bill, in favor of a piecemeal approach that is unlikely to include such a pathway.