RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina House voted Tuesday to cancel Gov. Pat McCrory's first two vetoes, handing setbacks to a Republican governor who fell short in persuading enough lawmakers in a chamber generally friendly to him to come to his side.
In less than 40 minutes of debate, the House voted to override vetoes on bills that would require drug-testing for some welfare applicants and broaden an exemption for employers to avoid using the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of new workers. The 77-39 vote for the drug testing bill and the 84-32 margin on the immigration-related bill cleared the three-fifths majorities needed for overrides.
The bills now go to the Senate, where leaders intended to debate Wednesday morning and vote. Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said earlier Tuesday he didn't see any reason why the bills would fail to pass in his chamber by veto-proof margins. If it holds true, the bills will become law.
Many House Republicans preferred not to hand defeats to McCrory, who has found in them close allies during his first eight months in office compared to Senate counterparts. But McCrory found it difficult to nudge enough GOP members from their positions. He also used Facebook to lobby some Republicans who voted originally for the vetoed bills and rolled out surrogates in recent days to try and turn the tide.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement that despite the disagreement Republicans "appreciate his leadership and continue to have great confidence in his administration."
"We're still on the same team," said House Majority Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, who voted with McCrory on the E-Verify bill. Tillis voted to override both vetoes. As with the bills when they originally passed in July, the override motions were approved with bipartisan support.
McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said the governor wouldn't comment until after Wednesday's activity in the Senate.
The drug-testing bill requires the state to test Work First welfare program applicants or recipients whom the agency "reasonably suspects" are engaged in illegal drug use. A person who tests positive for drugs couldn't re-apply for benefits for one year, but the time could be shorter if the person completes a substance abuse program and a drug retest. The retest and treatment costs are an applicant's responsibility.
McCrory said in his veto message the bill would cost much and do very little to stop substance abuse. The current law already requires local social service agencies to screen for substance abuse applicants for Work First — which provides cash assistance and job training using federal funds — and potentially help with treatment. But no drug testing is required.
The drug-testing requirement would be the equivalent of "kicking a man while he is down," said Rep. Jim Fulghum, R-Wake, the lone Republican to vote against the bill in July. He added: "I just don't think this is a useful addition to the law."
Two more Republicans joined Fulghum on Tuesday in voting to sustain the veto, as did more than a dozen Democrats who previously voted for the bill. But six Democrats still voted to override.
Bill sponsor Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, urged colleagues to override because "being drug-free is an essential part to find and keep a job" and "welfare aid should go to law abiding North Carolinians first."
The bill also requires local social services offices to conduct criminal background checks to ensure welfare and food stamp recipients and applicants don't have outstanding felony warrants, or probation or parole violations.
Republicans continued to be divided on the E-Verify bill, but all Democrats present voted in favor of an override. The bill exempts employers from counting temporary employees who work less than nine months in a calendar year while calculating whether they must use the federal E-Verify system.
The current law exempted workers of no more than three months, which the agriculture industry says was unworkable as they hired people to work in their fields. Some speakers during Tuesday's debate agreed with McCrory's argument that the bill would open a large loophole for all kinds of industries, allowing them to hire immigrants in the country illegally more easily.
"We're going to become a magnet for illegal aliens," said Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow. "It's the wrong thing to do. The governor is right."
Agribusiness associations and state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler wrote letters to legislative leaders asking them to cancel the veto. House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, said North Carolina farmers must rely on labor from all over the world, and they should be trusted to hire legal workers.
"This bill gives them the opportunity to have stability in their workforce," Hall said.