Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation Monday that would have canceled next year's judicial primary elections, saying he saw it as a precursor to a Republican push to appoint judges instead of having the public elect them.
Cooper signed a separate bill, Senate Bill 582, making a number of changes to the state budget. Among other things, the bill does away with what would have been a 2020 sunset for the state's film industry grants program. Cooper didn't mention a specific project but said the industry needs more certainty in North Carolina.
The judicial bill, Senate Bill 656, would also lower the percentage of votes needed to win crowded elections and make it easier for unaffiliated and third-party candidates to get on the ballot in North Carolina. But the poison pill for Cooper was language added last week to eliminate next year's judicial primaries.
Leaders for the General Assembly's Republican majority said they needed a time cushion to continue working on a planned overhaul of voting districts for trial court judges statewide. The plan, House Bill 717, passed the House last week but has not been heard in the Senate.
Cooper called canceling the primaries a "first step toward a constitutional amendment that will rig the system so that the legislature picks everybody's judges."
Something like that has been discussed in the Senate, which has seemed cool to the House's plan to redraw districts for judges. Changing the constitution to allow appointments instead of elections would require a statewide voter referendum.
"The rumors Gov. Cooper cited to justify his veto aren’t in this bill, which simply gives lawmakers time to conduct the thorough and deliberate study of North Carolina’s judicial elections that groups across the political spectrum – including members of our judiciary – have repeatedly called for," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, said in a statement.
Senate Bill 582 is a wide-ranging bill, making both small changes and substantive ones. It forbids Attorney General Josh Stein from pushing criminal appeals work off on local district attorneys, something his office had planned as part of its response to a surprise $10 million budget cut the General Assembly enacted earlier this year.
The bill also extended the film grant, though, and it included a partial fix for a law expected to trigger major salary cuts for a number of public school principals. These were the two positives Cooper mentioned about the bill Monday, though he said a more permanent solution is needed for other principal salary issues.
Cooper also complained of a missed opportunity in the bill to roll back class size mandates school systems have said will force them to reassign students, build new schools and scale back offered electives. The Wake County Public School System and a number of parents called last week for a pause on those mandates, and the House agreed. Senate leadership declined.
"This needs to be done immediately," Cooper said in his release.
This "technical corrections" bill also includes changes in the way funding set aside to plan for a new state aquarium in Scotts Hill can be used. The once-little-noticed provision in the state budget raised eyebrows last week because it contemplates a publicly funded facility as an anchor for private development.
Senate Bill 656 passed both the House and the Senate with veto-proof margins, suggesting the Republican majority will be able to overturn the Democratic governor's veto. Speaker of the House Tim Moore said Monday legislators will address the issue during a planned January session.
In addition to cancelling judicial primaries, the bill cuts the plurality threshold to win an election from 40 percent of the vote to 30 percent, making it easier to win crowded contests without a runoff.
The bill also would lower the number of petition signatures needed for unaffiliated candidates to make statewide ballots from 2 percent of turnout in the last governor's election to 1.5 percent. In municipal races it would go from 4 percent of the area's qualified voters to 1.5 percent.
Legislative offices would not be affected, and neither would county offices.
"This legislation makes needed, nonpartisan reforms to our ballot access laws and gives judicial candidates the time they need to analyze any forthcoming changes to judicial maps that the General Assembly may make," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, chairman of the House Elections Committee, said in a statement.