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Amid outcry, N.C. GOP passes law to curb Democratic governor’s power

North Carolina's Democratic governor-elect Roy Cooper says Republican lawmakers are trying to hinder his work by moving to strip powers from his office. (Video: Reuters)

With protesters knocking on the door to locked galleries, the North Carolina legislature pushed through controversial legislation aimed at dialing back the powers of the state's incoming Democratic governor and reorganizing the state's elections oversight body.

The legislature, meeting in a last-minute, year-end special session, approved a proposal along party lines Friday that would effectively give Republicans control of the state Board of Elections during election years. Outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed the bill into law Friday, despite not issuing any comment on the drama that has been wracking North Carolina politics since Wednesday.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that, for the first time in decades, would require the governor to get approval by the state Senate for his Cabinet appointees and end his ability to appoint members to the board of trustees of the powerful UNC school system. The measure would also drastically reduce the number of state employees the governor can directly hire and fire, from 1,500 to 425.

"Why does it make sense to enable the mass political firing of people who have been doing a wonderful job for the state?" said Senate President Phil Berger (R) in a statement. It's unclear as of Friday whether McCrory would sign that bill.

The bills were just two of several aimed at reducing the governor's influence in state government, the judicial branch, the education system and elections oversight, all while strengthening the GOP-dominated legislature's influence in all those areas.

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The fast-moving events in Raleigh caught Democrats by surprise.

McCrory convened lawmakers in Raleigh earlier this week pass a $200 million relief package for Hurricane Matthew and wildfire cleanup. Afterward, GOP lawmakers swiftly called their own special session dedicated to these changes.

Friday's votes came roughly two weeks after McCrory conceded to Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) in the nation's closest governor's race of 2016, winning by approximately 10,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast.

Republican legislative leaders said the changes were long overdue to realign constitutional power in the legislature, though they admitted a Democratic victory had accelerated the timetable for the changes.

"This was clearly a constitutional session," House Speaker Tim Moore (R) said. "It was fully compliant with the law."

Democratic lawmakers and activists derided their Republican colleagues' attempts at a “power grab” and urged North Carolinians to come to Raleigh to protest.

Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina echoed other nonpartisan watchdogs in saying the changes went "far beyond the normal partisan wrangling and change of power."

Hundreds of protesters heeded Democrats' calls and packed the capitol on Thursday and, to a lesser degree, on Friday. Police arrested more than 50 people after they refused to stop booing, chanting and cheering from the public galleries while lawmakers debated the bills. Several times, GOP lawmakers ordered the galleries to both chambers cleared.

In a news conference Thursday, Cooper warned Republicans they could be overstepping their bounds, politically if not constitutionally.

"This is about thwarting the governor's ability to move us forward," he said, promising to sue lawmakers for passing any law he deemed unconstitutional. "Most people might think that this is a partisan power grab. But this is more ominous."

What the courts will make of these changes remains an open question, said UNC law professor Michael Gerhardt. He said it's notable McCrory never went to the legislature over the last four years and claimed: "I think I'm too powerful and you should look for ways to weaken my office."

The last time GOP lawmakers called a high-profile special session, in March, they ended up ramming through one of the state's most controversial laws in recent memory: a bill limiting what public bathrooms transgender people can use and municipalities' ability to pass anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people.

National backlash to that bill contributed to McCrory's upset. He was the only governor in 2016 to lose his seat and the only governor in North Carolina history to lose reelection. (Notably, Republicans in the state legislature kept their supermajority in November, although a federal court found shortly before the election their electoral map illegally targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”)

This week's moves may be unprecedented in the state, but the process isn't. In 1972, when Jim Holshouser became the first Republican governor of North Carolina in the 20th century, Democrats in the legislature moved swiftly to give the Democratic lieutenant governor more control over the state. A decade later, the Democratic-controlled legislature tried to roll back those powers after voters elected the state's first lieutenant Republican governor of the 20th century.

Republican Jim Martin was governor during that tumultuous time, yet he told told the Raleigh News & Observer he thinks his party's proposal to take away the governor's ability to appoint members to the UNC board of trustees goes “too far.”

Indeed, the consensus in North Carolina political circles is that no power-stripping attempt has been as brazen as this one - a fight that may offer a glimpse of even more bruising battles to come next year between the governor and the legislature, with a Republican supermajority that can veto Cooper anytime they want. Before Cooper was even sworn in, they signaled they have little intention of playing nice with him.

The message Friday was clear, Gerhardt said: “We have a legislature intent on keeping the score politically.”

Kirk Ross in Raleigh contributed to this report