The Arnold Schwarzenegger of legislatures

By Rob Christense | Feb 14, 2017

By Rob Christensen

It is perhaps symbolic that the North Carolina legislature is one of only three in the country with its own building -- and not just any building but one designed by the same architect responsible for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

In most states, legislatures share their digs with the governor and other state offices. In North Carolina, the legislature has not one, but two buildings.

Which is fitting, because the North Carolina legislature is the 800-pound gorilla of Tar Heel politics. This week it tried to flex some new muscles.

The Republican-dominated Senate began the process of confirming appointments to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's Cabinet.

But the legislature was at least temporarily halted by a three-judge panel until the judges could determine whether this process was constitutional.

Previous North Carolina governors had free rein to name their administration team. But the GOP legislature -- piqued that Cooper had defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory – decided in a special post-election session that it would require a sign-off on Cooper's Cabinet choices.

It's not as though the N.C. legislature was some 98-pound weakling who needed to buff up. In fact, the Jones Street crowd makes up sort of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of legislatures.

Consider the following.

Veto: There is very little check on legislative power. North Carolina was the last state in the country to give its governor a veto and then gave it a very weak one. North Carolina is one of only 16 states where the governor does not have a line-item veto.

But even that doesn't matter today because, thanks in part to legislative gerrymandering, the Republicans have a veto-proof majority. That means the legislature can override any veto that Cooper delivers.

No term limits: North Carolina legislators can stay in office as long as they are still breathing. For decades, the tradition in North Carolina was that House speakers served one two-year term and the lieutenant governor -- then the leader of the Senate -- could serve one four-year term. But that tradition went by the wayside when the state Constitution was changed allowing Tar Heel governors to serve two consecutive four-year terms, setting off a domino effect on legislative leaders. Fourteen states have legislative term limits, but not North Carolina. Senate leader Phil Berger has been in office since 2001 -- or during the terms of four governors.

It is Berger who has largely driven policy in the state during the Perdue and McCrory administrations, and that will likely continue under Cooper.

It is hardly a secret in Raleigh that if you are a big corporation, trade association or any other special interest group and you want to get something done, the person you go to see is Berger -- not the governor.

The accretion of legislative power didn't start under the Republicans. Democratic House Speakers Liston Ramsey and Jim Black and Senate leader Marc Basnight also amassed power. But it has continued apace under the Republicans.

Little competition: Because lawmakers draw their own safe districts, most face little competition. During last year's elections when all 170 seats were up, 54 members had no competition in either the primary or general elections, and an additional 18 who faced primaries had no competition in the general election, according to Common Cause. Overall, 92 percent of lawmakers won by double digits. Or to put it another way, only 10 percent of the House seats and 8 percent of the Senate seats were competitive.

Perhaps, one could argue, it shows that the public is satisfied with the job the legislature is doing. But a statewide High Point University Poll released this week found that 27 percent approve of the job the legislature is doing, 41 percent disapprove, while 32 percent don't know or wouldn't say. That is in keeping with similar polls.

North Carolina was rated as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country in a 2014 analysis by The Washington Post. A federal court has ordered North Carolina to redraw 28 state House and Senate districts on the grounds they were racially gerrymandered.

With such unchecked power, an already mighty legislature has not hesitated to erode the governor's powers, to interfere with local governments, and to seek to alter decisions by voters in local elections.

The legislature's power accumulated over decades and was the work of both political parties. But political polarization, divided government and gerrymandering has cast a new, more negative light on the trend.

Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Write to him at rchristensen@newsobserver.com.