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Gary Pearce: Governor, pro-tem and pandemic powers

 By Gary Pearce

Politics and the pandemic are inseparable in North Carolina.

Last year’s gubernatorial election got caught up in COVID fever. This year, pandemic politics likely will spread to the legislature – and write the latest chapter in North Carolina’s eternal power struggle between governors and legislators.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger says Gov. Roy Cooper’s exercise of emergency powers in the pandemic “is inconsistent with what our system of government would expect.” Berger added, “I would like to see some changes.”

Need I note that Berger is a Republican and Cooper is a Democrat?

Most every North Carolinian knows what Berger is talking about. Cooper’s handling of the Covid crisis dominated the news last year and helped him win reelection handily.

But someone reading the Senate president pro tem’s concerns might ask: “What, pray tell, is a ‘pro tem’?”

Officially, the office is “president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate.” He (never a she, so far as I recall) is the highest-ranking member of the Senate, elected by the members. “Pro tempore” is Latin meaning “for the time being.” In the state Senate, it means “for just about forever.”

Governors come and go, but two presidents pro tem have held power in North Carolina for almost 30 years: Democrat Marc Basnight, who died in December, and Berger. How pro tems got to be so powerful for so long is a long story.

Berger’s statement that Cooper’s power “is inconsistent with what our system of government would expect” is debatable. But most any real power that governors exercise is definitely inconsistent with our history.

When North Carolina’s first constitution was written in 1776, the framers were smarting over tyrannical royal governors. They made the governor’s office weak, and it remained weak well into the 20th century. Governors could serve only one four-year term. They were the only governors in all 50 states without veto power.

Jim Hunt changed that. After he was elected governor in 1976, he pushed through a constitutional amendment so governors could serve two terms.

Dominos started falling. The House began electing speakers to successive terms. Democrat Liston Ramsey kept the gavel from 1981 to 1989.

Succession also applied to lieutenant governors. They had real power then, like appointing Senate committees, assigning bills and often deciding what passed and what didn’t.

But when Republican Jim Gardner became lieutenant governor in 1989, Senate Democrats stripped him of his powers. The Senate president pro tem became the power.

Basnight was pro tem for 18 years, 1992-2010. He made it a powerful position. But he also helped Governor Hunt, then back for his third term, pass gubernatorial veto in 1996.

Berger has been pro tem since Republicans took the Senate in 2010. As with Basnight, the key to his power has been controlling the caucus’ campaign operation – candidate recruitment, coordinated campaigns and, above all, fundraising. He controls the money and the message.

Lieutenant governors preside over the Senate, but have little power now. They run independently. So they’re not part of the governor’s administration. The office is mainly a holding room for a gubernatorial campaign.

Then there’s the Council of State, which is elected independently. Often, its members think they should be co-governors. Last year, then-Lt. Governor Dan Forest sued Gov. Cooper, contending Council of State approval was required for pandemic closings. Forest lost the lawsuit and lost the governor’s race.

It’s in the nature of legislators, whatever their party, to strip power from governors, whatever their party. It will be no surprise this year if Republican legislators challenge the Democratic governor’s pandemic powers.

But which will they put first: fighting the pandemic or fighting for power?

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and government at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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