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The General Assembly likely has the votes to override Gov. Pat McCrory's veto of a bill that Henderson County farmers strongly support as a stopgap fix to ensure an adequate labor supply, local legislators said.
A bill that eased a new requirement for citizenship checks for farmworkers was one of two bills that McCrory vetoed after the Legislature closed its 2013 session on July 26.
"I think we're going to override it," said state Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, a top Senate deputy. "I know the Senate will. There was only one dissenting vote in the Senate. This is not an immigration bill if you study it. It's a farm labor bill. If they don't want to vote for it let them go and pick the tomatoes and apples."
Current state law exempts E-verify checks for workers hired for 90 days or less, a time frame that Henderson County farmers say does not cover a season of planting, cultivating and harvesting crops. The bill passed this year would have expanded the farmworker excemption to nine months.
The state Constitution requires the opportunity for a special session to take up the governor's veto if the Legislature chooses. The decision in the case of both vetoed bills belongs to House Speaker Thom Tillis because the bills originated in the House. McCrory urged legislative leaders not to convene for an override but it's going to happen. Tillis called legislators into session the day after Labor Day for two days at the most.
"We will continue to consult with our members to determine what action may be taken on the vetoed legislation," Tillis said in a statement. "Our office will also continue to work closely with the Governor's office in advance of the session."
State Rep. Chuck McGrady said he had received one call from the governor's office checking on his position. He voted for the immigration bill and supports a veto override.
"It's awkward because I do anticipate being out of town" on a long-planned vacation to California, he said. "If my vote is critically needed I'll make arrangements to come back. But at this point my expectation is there are enough votes to override both of them."
"The governor hasn't called me though I know he did call some of my colleagues," he said. "Once they figured out it was more likely than not that I wasn't going to be there they didn't have much interest in me."
Rep. Mike Hager, a House leader, told the Raleigh News & Observer the House has the three-fifths majority needed to override the veto.
"If it were up to me, I would go ahead and override both of them," said Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton. "We got pretty good last year at overriding vetoes. I think we got it down pat by now."
Those overrides canceled vetoes by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue; this is the first time the overwhelmingly Republican General Assembly has faced a veto from McCrory, a fellow Republican who is in his first year of office.
"This legislation has a loophole that would allow businesses to exempt a higher percentage of their employees from proving they are legal U.S. citizens or residents," McCrory said in a statement. "Every job an illegal immigrant takes is one less job available for a legal North Carolina citizen. We must do everything we can to help protect jobs for North Carolinians first and foremost."
Henderson County farmers and their supporters had been lobbying since 2011 to relax the tougher E-verify requirements that the Legislature had passed that year. Farmers in labor-dependent Henderson County scoffed at the idea that there are enough U.S. citizens willing and able to fill the jobs needed to harvest apples, pack fruit and vegetables and cultivate nursery products.
"I guess they're going to eat cardboard and oak bark when this country doesn't have any food any more," Edneyville apple grower Kenny Barnwell said. "We'll try to get federal immigration reform, which is what we need anyway. I just thought McCrory would look at specifically his party's support of this bill and understand the need for it, but I guess he can't see."
Mark Williams, the Henderson County agribusiness development director, said the E-verify requirement could lead to a labor shortage for local farmers.
"The notion that they're taking jobs that U.S. citizens will do is just a misconception," he said. "With all the specialty crops we have, everything is highly dependent on a large number of manual workers."
McCrory said the bill was too broad. "We need to grow the economy, but not at the expense of North Carolina's jobs," he said. "We need to verify that people working in North Carolina are doing so legally."
Williams said, "I understand where he's coming from but it still hasn't fixed our issue."
"We're not looking for an amnesty program," he added. "We're looking for a viable guest worker program and there have been numerous versions that would allow for a current work force and future work force for farms. We can either find a viable solution to importing our labor or end up importing our food."