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Scott Mooneyham: Easley misses boat on veto

By Scott Mooneyham
RALEIGH ó Senate leader Marc Basnight said the vote had nothing to do with Mike Easley’s lame duck status.
Don’t bet on it.
Eight times, the governor had vetoed bills. Eight times, the North Carolina General Assembly had flinched, failing to override his veto. Instead, legislative leaders would cobble together some type of compromise, allowing everybody to save face.
This time, though, a Democratic legislature would override a Democratic governor, a governor who just happened to be a few months away from completing his final year in office. Finally, these legislators had their opportunity to thumb their nose at a governor that a lot of them ó Democrat and Republican ó don’t really like. They took it.
The first veto override in the state’s history wouldn’t come over school funding, or health care, or legislative ethics. No, it came on the issue of boat towing.
Easley opposed legislation easing width restrictions on boats towed down North Carolina highways. He told legislators as much during the legislative session. At first, they tried to appease him, modifying the bill. When that didn’t work, they ignored him, approving the legislation by overwhelming margins in the House and Senate. Once he vetoed the bill, Easley and his State Highway Patrol made appeals to the public, raising concerns about highway safety. State troopers even held a demonstration complete with wide boat, orange cones and narrow road.
Hey, it looks a lot better than kicking dogs.
Besides the aforementioned rancor and Easley’s lame duck status, there are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work.
Foremost, making the case was hard. The law restricting vehicle widths, including trailers hauling boats, to eight-and-a-half feet had been on the books for three decades. Meanwhile, people had become wealthier; boats had gotten bigger.
More and more boats 9 or 91/2 feet wide were being hauled down state highways with no enforcement of permit or towing time restrictions. This happened with no evidence that these boats were causing more accidents. In fact, numbers compiled by legislative staffers indicated that towed boats of all types account for less than 0.2 percent of accidents on North Carolina roads.
But last fall, state troopers stopped some fishermen leaving a king mackerel tournament in Atlantic Beach, passing out hefty fines. An Internet brouhaha resulted, with fishermen and tournament organizers vowing not to return to the state.
Also, the Easley administration apparently didn’t consider that the state’s substantial boat building industry would weigh in on the issue. Hatteras, Fountain, Grady White, Albemarle and Parker Boats are among the largest of a few dozen of boat manufacturers. That’s jobs and political clout.
A few months ago, recently retired Highway Patrol Col. Fletcher Clay met behind closed doors with a group of legislators about enforcement issues including boat towing. He allegedly told lawmakers, “You write the laws, we’ll enforce them.”
Now, they’ve written one, the first one over the strong objections of a governor with veto power.
– – –
Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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