It’s Time to Rein in the Wannabe Emperor of NC

Every time Gov. Roy Cooper announces a press conference, I can’t stop myself from singing the last few lines of a “Hamilton” song. With COVID-19, life as we know it can all change in unpredictable ways every time Gov. Cooper takes the podium during gubernatorial press conference every Tuesday.

Since Gov. Cooper declared a state of emergency on March 10, he has virtually unlimited ability to change how we live. He can force people to stay in their homes, shutter schools, close businesses or restrict their hours, end gatherings, or any combination thereof. The Governor can change these measures at any moment, with or without notice. His decrees have the force of law, and apparently cannot be challenged when you consider the impotent response from Republicans.

Set aside for a moment how you feel about the specific restrictions Gov. Cooper has implemented and ask: Should one man have this much power?

Should a Governor, no matter how many votes he may have received, have unfettered control over our day-to-day lives? As the COVID pandemic wears on, the answer is increasingly becoming clear: No. Not indefinitely. Not completely. Not ever. It’s time to re-write North Carolina’s emergency powers law for the new reality. Our current law is too broad. Luckily, there are a few simple provisions we can add that are already on the books in other states that would better serve the people of North Carolina.

A Very Bad Law

The source of the Governor’s unlimited power is North Carolina’s Emergency Management Act. The law sets up “disasters” and “emergencies,” with the former generally preceding the latter. Disasters generally last 60 days and allow for different types of relief money to flow to where they’re needed.

But the act also gives the Governor or the General Assembly the ability to declare a state of emergency, which remains in effect until whoever implemented it declares it to be over. The law then spells out special powers that the Governor has during these emergencies. Subsection “A” lists things the Governor can do on his own. These include marshaling state resources, directing law enforcement, and firing public officials who aren’t carrying out their duties. Then the law goes into powers the Governor has with the concurrence of the Council of State. These include mandatory evacuations, rationing and price freezing, regulating traffic and controlling public gatherings.

All of that is normal, long-standing policy. But the Emergency Management Act then includes a subsection “C” that basically renders everything above it moot. Here’s the crucial part:

“[D]uring a gubernatorially or legislatively declared state of emergency, if the Governor determines that local control of the emergency is insufficient to assure adequate protection for lives and property … the Governor has the following powers:  To impose by declaration prohibitions and restrictions in the emergency area. These prohibitions and restrictions may, in the Governor’s discretion, as appropriate to deal with the emergency, impose any of the types of prohibitions and restrictions … and may amend or rescind any prohibitions and restrictions imposed by local authorities…”

To put it in layman’s terms: If the Governor believes that local governments can’t handle the emergency, the Governor can impose any restrictions, controls or mandates he wants. There’s no oversight, no necessary justification and no expiration. The powers are complete and last as long as the Governor decides he wants them. It’s not just me reading it this way. State courts validated this interpretation of the law in August.

Modernization Gone Awry

As it turns out, this poorly written law has only given the Governor absolute power since 2012. That’s when a new law went into effect that rewrote North Carolina’s Emergency Management Act. Though the GOP had taken over the General Assembly by then, this law was a Democrat creation — authored by Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) and signed into law by then-Gov. Bev Perdue. Called the “Modernize NC Emergency Management Act,” the law largely left the state’s 1970s-era emergency law in place but for some reorganization. The new law also delineated between an “emergency” and a “disaster” for the first time. But the law also added in subsection “C” mentioned above. Earlier versions of the law did not include this catch-all power abrogation. Instead, the Governor needed the Council of State to exercise the broadest reach of emergency power.

The Fix

Going back to Council of State concurrence would be a healthy step. But there’s a simpler, more elegant solution: Put an end date on states of emergency, and require the General Assembly to sign off on extending it. 

Our emergency management law does not envision an emergency that never ends. But we’re now nine months into one with no legal end date. Remember, the emergency lasts as long as the Governor decrees. This is unusual across the country. Very few states use unlimited state of emergency declarations, and during COVID-19, these states have renewed their declarations as many as 11 times. Colorado law, for example, allows a state of emergency to last 30 days, after which it must be renewed. That is a reasonable period of time. North Carolina should set its state of emergency declarations at 30 days, with the ability to renew.

But North Carolina should add one more check on this power — requiring legislative approval to extend a state of emergency. This isn’t an untested proposal. Alaska, Kansas, Utah, and Washington all have similar laws that require their state legislatures to approve a Governor’s state of emergency to last longer than 30 days. It’s an obvious fix for an unprecedented problem.

North Carolina has always been among the states most wary of executive power. Governors couldn’t run for a second term until 1977, and we were the last state in the country to give the Governor veto power (in 1996). That’s why it’s so surprising that our state gives the Governor such broad, unchecked emergency powers.

It’s time for the General Assembly to rein in this wannabe emperor during the next legislative session.

The Strategic Approach to Saving Time and Effort

If you are familiar with the concept of focusing on your strengths, then perhaps you know why sometimes People, Teams or even Organizations fail.

Have learned through StrengthsFinders (not an endorsement – 😊) training and during multiple conversations with mentors, that it is best to focus on building up your strengths rather than focusing on improving upon your weaknesses. Many studies have demonstrated that trying to improve a weakness is far less constructive than spending time building up your strengths. Especially (imo) once you are over 25 and have a more solid assessment of your skills and abilities. And while there is great merit in emphasizing strength building activities you should still be cautious of using tools like Strengths-Finder, as it could result in a skewed view. A possible more accurate and objective assessment is by asking others, who know you very well, to fill out the questionnaire.

What many neglect to do in light of their deficient abilities in certain areas is to partner up with others whose strengths may complement their own. A colleague with a different skill set might be able to offer constructive advice or even assist to ensure you and others become more effective, collectively and independently. It is precisely this kind of situation that illustrates how important it is for leaders to diversify the skillsets on their Teams. Another issue is that wasting resources developing a skill beyond what is necessary when it isn’t something one is both good or passionate about is generally an unproductive use of our top commodity, Time! Individuals need to assess whether the time they invest to develop any skill is necessary and/or beneficial based on their top strengths and passion.

The strategy many well intentioned people employ is to get better at a lot of things at once — spreading the improvement in their abilities like one might spread peanut butter on toasted bread. And while this approach does help you improve, it can be because you are often concentrated on things you aren’t as efficient at where just a little effort goes a long way. This feedback loop of seeing progress is addicting (especially to dedicated people) so they spread themselves even thinner to get stronger in even more diverse areas. And while I admit this growth can be positive, I have seen it lead to stress and fatigue, having fallen victim to this strategy myself.

What if you instead could improve more swiftly and with expert resolve by focusing on just 1-3 strengths, mastering these abilities to become even stronger in those areas.

Unfortunately, what some of us often do is perform a root-cause analysis on their weaknesses, spending an inordinate amount of time self-reflecting. Thus descending into an introspective trap until finally discovering a valid excuse under which one can hide unnecessary guilt. The result usually is a waste of too much quality time, energy, and disappointing relationships at work and at home.

Now, turn that thinking around. None of us can deny that we have tasted success, more-or-less within our lifetimes. We have also witnessed its glory many times over from afar. So what if we instead spent time performing a root-cause analysis of what led to that success, others we admire and our own? This shift in focus, from weaknesses to strengths, has the capability of instilling confidence, inspiration and positivity into your well-being and those around you. Further, the most effective people perform an analysis after each successful venture, assuring they stay consistent and achieve their dreams.

So how can we do this? First, starting with common sense is often a good guide. Aim to make the most of your natural and/or developed talents, adding relevant skills to further these as necessary. Simultaneously, seek knowledge that will allow you to expand the boundaries of your current strengths. Doing this will not only help you to build up expertise but will also allow you to concentrate on matters that bring you joy.

Read on to learn more…