Gov. Roy Cooper COVID-19

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks during a briefing on North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic response Tuesday, April 7, 2020 at the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh.

(The Center Square) – The North Carolina House has approved a bill to limit the governor's power to shut down the economy during an emergency.

House Bill 264 would require the governor to seek the concurrence of a panel of state officials when issuing a statewide declaration of emergency for 67 or more North Carolina counties for more than 30 days.

The House approved the measure with a 69-50 vote Wednesday.

"It has now been over a year since Gov. [Roy] Cooper unilaterally placed our citizens under a statewide emergency due to COVID-19," said Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, a co-sponsor of HB 264. "Regardless of the politics of his executive orders, this is not how a representative republic works, and it is not the intent of the law. No one person should have such sweeping and unilateral authority to shut down our state."

According to the bill's sponsors, Cooper sought approval from the Council of State in March 2020 for his initial COVID-19 order, which closed businesses throughout the state, but later "switched legal theories" when some members raised questions. The bill's sponsors said the legal loophole allowed Cooper to continue issuing executive emergency orders without the Council of State.

The governor is part of the Council of State, along with the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, commissioner of labor, commissioner of agriculture, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction.

"The Council of State's responsibility is to help the governor in dealing with issues of this magnitude," Kidwell said Wednesday during debate over the bill.

If HB 264 becomes law, the governor would have to seek the Council of State's approval within seven days of issuing an emergency order. The governor must then seek concurrence every following 30 days.

Opponents of the bill said North Carolinians' well-being should take precedent over technicalities and politics in the middle of a pandemic.

"It is true that the Council of State is elected statewide, but only one person is elected as the governor. That person is given these authorities and powers and has had them before, and now is not the time to change course," said Rep. Amos Quick III, D-Guilford. "We live in a society that has built this great economy, and our society must be protected from this virus. There will be no economy if there are no people."

According to the Maine Policy Institute, North Carolina is one of 15 states with no time limit on a governor's state of emergency declaration. The North Carolina Legislature and the governor have the power to declare an emergency, Maine Policy Institute's Emergency Powers Scorecard shows, and the declaration can be terminated only by the authority who made it.

Cooper has faced legal challenges over the restrictions within the emergency orders. Churches and businesses have filed lawsuits aimed at rolling back the restrictions. Cooper's Republican opponent in last November's gubernatorial election, former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, unsuccessfully sued the governor last year for issuing public health orders without concurrence from the Council of State.

According to a recent Meredith University poll, 55.8% of North Carolinians believe the state's COVID-19 restrictions on businesses should remain in place.

HB 264 now heads to the Senate for consideration before being sent to Cooper for final approval.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.