When North Carolina finally gave the governor the power to veto bills starting in 1997, it was the last state in the nation to do so. 

Republicans had taken control of the House for the first time in a century and wanted a comprehensive veto. But some Democratic members, particularly in the House, didn’t want to cede any of the power they had long enjoyed.

The result was a compromise that gave North Carolina’s governor a veto, but still left the state’s top leader with one of the weakest veto powers in the country. The governor is unable to strike down parts of a bill through a line-item veto, and has no say in redistricting, local bills, constitutional amendments, or General Assembly resolutions. And for matters the governor can reject, the legislature can override with a three-fifths vote—below the two-thirds threshold of most states.

The architect of the deal: State Sen. Roy Cooper.

“I always bring this up as the biggest irony in North Carolina politics,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist (no relation to the governor). “Past Roy Cooper tied current Roy Cooper’s hands behind his back. If he had written a different kind of veto, we’d have a very different North Carolina.”

On one hand, the veto has allowed Gov. Cooper to prevent 52 bills from becoming law, including measures that would have loosened gun laws, limited abortion access, and cracked down on immigration. On the other, voting maps that have diluted the power of Democrats and racial minorities in recent decades may never have been implemented if the governor had broader authority.

Cooper now faces what is perhaps his greatest predicament yet. While Republicans make up three-fifths of the Senate, the GOP is one seat short of a veto-proof margin in the House. Democrats must keep nearly all House members united and present if they want to uphold Cooper’s vetoes over the next two years. 

The governor now has two bills on his desk similar to measures he previously vetoed, including one that would erode tenant protections for hotel guests and another that would impose harsher penalties on protesters who engage in violence or property damage.

For political watchers like Chris Cooper, the drama underscores a familiar pattern in North Carolina politics: “You should be careful what you wish for.”

The Long Road to Veto

Granting the governor veto power was discussed in the state Senate in 1925, and gained steam in 1931 after Democratic Gov. Max Gardner appointed a nine-member commission to study the state constitution and report findings. 

Proponents viewed vetoes as a necessary check on the legislature; opponents saw them as ripe for executive overreach. While a proposed constitutional amendment to grant the governor veto power passed the General Assembly in 1933, it required approval from voters, which it never got due to some technical issues. 

Similar efforts in the following decades didn’t gain serious momentum. 

When lawmakers reevaluated the state constitution in the late 1960s as part of a modernization effort, they decided against putting forth amendments that could be seen as controversial and focused instead on largely technical tweaks.

“If he had written a different kind of veto, we’d have a very different North Carolina.”

Chris Cooper, political scientist

But over time, North Carolina faced heightened statewide scrutiny, particularly from newspaper editorial boards, over its last-in-the-nation status on governor vetoes. Democrats held a firm grasp of the legislature throughout the 20th century and had little willingness to give up any of their authority. Republicans, meanwhile, made the issue a central talking point on the campaign trail. 

By the time Roy Cooper was elected to the state House in 1987, adding a veto was a top priority of then-Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican.

Martin said he’d found popular support for it as he campaigned. “That veto was needed and it always got a very good response,” Martin told The Assembly. “We tracked it with polls and found that the more we could address it, the more likely there’d be pressure on individual legislators in their own district to make the change happen.”

In his 1989 State of the State Address, Martin called it “the year of the veto.” Lawmakers soon took up the issue.

“Even the governor of American Samoa has vetoes, but not North Carolina,” Martin recalled telling lawmakers at the time.

Constitutional amendments require three-fifths support in both the House and Senate in order to go to voters for final approval. While majorities in both the House and Senate supported giving the governor veto power, it didn’t have three-fifths support in the House. Republicans in the chamber universally supported the veto; Cooper was one of 16 House Democrats who also did. 

“Our Republican friends have been brilliant in using the issue to bash Democrats,” Cooper said on the floor at the time of the bill’s failure, the Rocky Mount Telegram reported.

Martin took the loss in stride.

“It was not a crushing defeat,” Martin said looking back. “It’s something we just had to keep working on. We were getting closer and kept working at it even when I was leaving office.”

State Sen. Roy Cooper.

Cooper became a state senator in 1991 and steadily rose through the party ranks. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, Cooper saw an opportunity for a deal. He negotiated a compromise bill that year to get enough Democrats on board with giving the governor a veto. He resolved sticking points by providing a lower override threshold and making it so the governor couldn’t veto legislation that affected fewer than 15 counties.

Dan Blue, the current Senate minority leader and a House member in 1995, was among those who opposed Cooper’s compromise. 

“I was against giving the governor veto power because I thought that the legislature, if it operated the way it did then so that all voices were heard, was the best barometer of where the people of the state are,” Blue told The Assembly.

He didn’t want the governor to have any veto power at the time. But in hindsight, he said, the bill didn’t give the governor enough power. 

“The veto power that we gave the governor is weak in that it does not give him an opportunity to express the overwhelming feelings of the people on an issue,” Blue said. “If you’re going to give him the veto power, he ought to have vetoes over a host of matters except local bills.”

Cooper’s bill passed with strong bipartisan support, clearing the House by a vote of 96-19 and the Senate 45-3. The following year, more than 75 percent of North Carolina voters approved of the constitutional amendment, allowing it to take effect in 1997.

Harold Brubaker, the Republican House speaker at that time, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Cooper declined to be interviewed for this story, but his office provided a statement.

“North Carolina was the only state in the nation without veto authority for the governor, and the law that finally authorized it in the 1990s was the product of a major compromise between legislators who wanted a stronger veto and those who opposed giving the governor any veto power at all,” said Sam Chan, a Cooper spokesperson. 

Cooper, she said, “pushed for a stronger veto but understood that the compromises contained in the veto law were necessary to get enough votes to pass it.”

Wielding the Veto

Since 1997, five governors have vetoed 110 bills, according to a report from the N.C. Legislative Library

Cooper has vetoed 75 bills since taking office in 2017, more than twice as many as his four predecessors combined, according to The Assembly’s analysis. The General Assembly has voted to override Cooper’s veto 23 times. 

But that hasn’t happened since Democrats broke GOP supermajorities in the 2018 election, much to Republicans’ chagrin. 

“The veto power that we gave the governor is weak in that it does not give him an opportunity to express the overwhelming feelings of the people on an issue.”

Dan Blue, Senate minority leader

The veto, said GOP Senate leader Phil Berger, has “prevented measures that enjoyed broad support in the legislature, and, I believe, among the public at large, from becoming law.”

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore is already testing Cooper’s strength by getting veto-proof majorities on key bills Cooper rejected last session. 

“We feel really confident that a number of ideas and bills that we passed this last session and the session before where there were vetoes that we were unable to override, that those issues are still on the table and that we’ll be able to get those successfully passed into law this session,” Moore told reporters last month.

Trust Falls

Rules the House passed on February 15 make it easier for Republicans to override vetoes; the GOP no longer has to provide a day’s notice in advance of an override vote, which had been required in previous sessions.

Because of the rule change, Democrats will need to be present at all times to avoid surprise override votes.

“We are going to be able to stop some things,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a New Hanover County Democrat. “Some things, we may not be able to stop. But I think if North Carolinians make their voices heard and speak to their representatives and tell them how important protecting these vetoes of the governor are to them, then maybe we’ll be OK.”

Many Democrats still harbor resentment over a September 11, 2019 House vote in which Republicans overrode Cooper’s veto of the state budget. Former Republican House Rules Chairman David Lewis told reporters and Democratic lawmakers that there would be no voting that day, so several Democrats did not show up. 

Speaker of the House Tim Moore talks with Rep. George Cleveland before the opening session of the N.C. House of Representatives Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)

Moore called a vote to override Cooper’s budget veto anyway. Some Democrats pin the blame on Lewis, but others have been unwilling to give Moore a pass. 

“It became apparent at some point when every Republican was face forward in their seat that something was amiss,” Butler said. “The speaker called that bill forward and it was chaos.”

Butler erupted on the floor, trying to prevent the vote. But Republicans said she was out of order and was not allowed to disrupt proceedings. As her mic got shut off, she shouted: “I will not yield, Mr. Speaker!” There was little she could do. Republicans called the vote. It passed 55-15. 

“To me, it was like the death of civility, trust, and respect,” said former Democratic Rep. Brian Turner, who had been absent that day.

Butler said that vote killed any trust she had in Moore, and it hasn’t been restored. “If you don’t honor the representations of your first lieutenant, then I don’t know what kind of a leader you are,” she said.

Moore, for his part, attributes the vote to a misunderstanding between Lewis and former Democratic House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, who is also no longer in the House. He said he never personally promised not to hold votes, and insists Democrats have no reason to be concerned about surprise votes going into this session. 

“If they haven’t realized based on my nine years of being speaker where they can trust me on this, then I don’t know what more I can show them,” he said.

Current House Minority Leader Robert Reives says he accepts Moore’s explanation. Many Democrats see Reives’ embrace of Moore as a reflection of the political reality for Democrats: They have no choice but to work with him.

“The only reason [trust] is not gone for Tim Moore is because he’s still speaker and people still need him,” Turner said.

Try, Try Again

Last week, the House and Senate sent Cooper two bills that are similar to measures he previously vetoed.

Fifteen House Democrats voted for Senate Bill 43, which would prevent guests at hotels, motels, inns, campgrounds, vehicle parks, and similar temporary lodging areas from having residential tenancy rights during the first 90 consecutive days of their stay.

Cooper vetoed a nearly identical bill in 2021, writing that it “removes legal protections and allows unnecessary harm to vulnerable people, including families with children, who have turned to hotels and motels for housing in a time of need.”

Cooper has until Friday night to sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature. Representatives for Cooper didn’t respond to requests for comment on how the governor would act.

The Senate also sent Cooper an anti-rioting bill last week that Moore had authored in partnership with Democratic Rep. Shelly Willingham. Critics say House Bill 40 would discourage people from exercising their First Amendment right to protest. Cooper vetoed a similar bill in 2021, writing that it was designed to “intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”

Rep. Shelly Willingham and his granddaughter look over forms before the opening session of the N.C. House of Representatives Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)

Proponents say the bill is simply meant to hold those who loot or cause physical damage accountable. 

“There must be some overt act in the commission of violence towards a person or towards property prior to someone being able to be prosecuted,” state Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said on the chamber floor last week. “What we are absolutely not doing is punishing lawful protesting.”

Willingham and five other House Democrats voted for that bill last month. Willingham also voted for the hotel tenancy rules, and told The Assembly that he would vote to override Cooper’s veto on any bill that he’s already supported.

“If it comes back, I’ll still support it,” Willingham said. “That’s just the way I operate.”

Bryan Anderson is a freelance reporter who most recently covered elections, voting access, and state government for WRAL-TV. He previously reported for the Associated Press and The News & ObserverYou can subscribe to his newsletter here.