In the past three weeks, state legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan have moved to strip power from incoming Democratic governors. The tactics, while themselves different, follow the efforts of North Carolina Republicans in 2016 to limit the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Between the election of Cooper and the time he took his seat in Jan. 2017, the General Assembly took action to limit his ability to appoint cabinet members and members of the board of elections, among other appointments. The assembly also moved to limit the power of the state Attorney General, Josh Stein.
Some of those provisions stand, but some, like turning the board of elections bipartisan, were struck down in court. Still, others are currently in litigation.
But David Weiner who studies democracy reform at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York said, more than anything, those laws set a precedent for other states.
“I think North Carolina was clearly the canary in the coal mine for a certain brand of no-holds-barred tactics,” Weiner said.
In effect, he said, the process has been exported to lawmakers in Michigan and Wisconsin to counter incoming governors.
“What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander,” Weiner said. “So if you liked the governor exercising certain powers when the governor was a member of your party, to change the rules after you lose the governor’s election is tremendously corrosive to our democracy.”
In Wisconsin, a bill to weaken the incoming governor is on the current Republican governor’s desk. The bill would give legislators more power over the state’s economic development agency and would limit the attorney general’s power over a lawsuit the state is currently involved in.
So far, Michigan has passed a bill to limit the incoming secretary of state’s ability to oversee campaign finance. The Michigan legislature is set to debate this week whether to take more control of the state’s position in court cases, a role currently held by the governor and attorney general.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, said conservative political consultant Paul Shumaker in Raleigh. It’s just politics.
“What’s taking place today is only new to a new generation,” Shumaker said. “It’s not new to American politics.”
Shumaker worked for North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin when he was elected in 1984 — the year a Democratic-controlled state legislature stripped his power and the power of the lieutenant governor.
He said the executive, legislative and judicial branches work together to balance each other out, and he’s confident that they’re working.
“I will tell you this," Shumaker said, "If you try to pull the wool over the eyes of the American public, they’re going to remember in the next election cycle."
He said the state judiciaries can stop legislatures from passing laws that infringe on the balance of power. And in North Carolina — where Supreme Court members are elected — he pointed out that citizens have elected a mostly-Democratic court, possibly to counteract limits on gubernatorial power.