RALEIGH — The General Assembly on Wednesday cancelled Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a bill designed to give North Carolina employers legal recourse against people who deliberately get jobs to steal company secrets or record purported maltreatment at farms or factories.
The Senate and House separately voted to override the veto. It means the bill, which had been dubbed “ag-gag,” will be enacted into law despite McCrory’s objections. The margins in each chamber — 79-36 in the House and 33-15 in the Senate — were above the three-fifths majority of members voting and required for an override.
In vetoing the bill late last week, McCrory said the legislation fell short of protecting honest workers who uncover criminal activity and would discourage them from reporting it. Democrats lined up Wednesday with McCrory in urging his veto be preserved and that a legislative fix be found to narrow its scope.
But supporters of the bill — fellow Republicans like the governor — insisted whistleblowers who sought jobs under valid pretenses would still be protected under state law.
“This bill allows legitimate employees to report illegal activity or workplace practices,” said Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, the bill’s chief sponsor, during House debate. “There’s no wording in this bill to eliminate that.”
McCrory said after the votes he was pleased more lawmakers who voted for the bill previously agreed Wednesday to preserve his veto. He was glad to hear discussion of attempts to adjust the new law with additional legislation this year to make it less onerous.
“I hope they follow through with that commitment,” McCrory said in a release.
The override marks the third time the legislature has canceled his veto since taking office in early 2013. He’s issued five vetoes during that time.
Animal rights groups, the state AARP and other organizations fought the measure. They are worried that it would mark the end of hidden-camera exposes of animal cruelty at farms or meat-packing plants, or intimidate nursing home workers enough to discourage their reporting of elder abuse.
“This new law turns whistleblowers into criminals, and it provides special protections for corporations and individuals that do terrible things to animals and even vulnerable people,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a release.
A teenager working at a pet store who uncovers animal abuse could be held civil liable by his employer if the youth posts pictures of the abuse on Facebook, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. The ability of the media to perform undercover work also could be threatened, said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.
The law, which now takes effect in early 2016, lets an employer sue and get monetary damages from someone who gains access to nonpublic areas of a company without authority and commits theft or sets up a camera or audio recorder. Some civil damages would be $5,000 penalties for each day the law is violated.
“The claims made about this bill have been at best misguided and at worst misleading, but the fact is both employers and employees across our state will benefit from these important protections becoming law,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, a farmer who shepherded the bill in the Senate.
The North Carolina Chamber pressed for the legislation, saying more protections were needed against thefts of intellectual property.
State laws already address stealing, said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham.
“This was a bill that was not needed,” Hall told reporters. “I think this is overkill, this is over the top.”