Thanks to tinkering by North Carolina’s General Assembly, voters this November will face a virtual book of a ballot, chock full of somewhat bewildering constitutional amendments.
Some are rather silly, such as the amendment to establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish … except when the state says you can’t do either.
And some are simply naked power-grabs that will be bad for the state, regardless of which political parties are in power.
Case in point: the separation of powers amendment, which will gut parts of the N.C. Constitution that have stayed intact since its creation in 1776, six months after our nation declared its independence and threw off a yoke of tyranny.
Like the framers in Philadelphia, the writers of North Carolina’s constitution had a classic view of a balanced government, with checks on power intentionally established.
As we learned back in civics class, there are three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive administers and enforces them, and the judicial interprets the laws and serves as a referee. The three branches checked and balanced each other.
Now, unlike the U.S. president, North Carolina’s governor is relatively weak. Until 1996, Tar Heel governors had no veto power. Even now, it’s a relatively weak veto: it can be overridden by a 60 percent vote of the General Assembly, as opposed to the two-thirds vote required in Congress. To compensate, historically the governor had wide powers to appoint folks to various state boards.
We currently have a Democratic governor and a legislature that — thanks to the wonders of gerrymandering — has a veto-proof Republican majority. The GOP has been overriding Roy Cooper’s vetoes left and right. (Mostly right.)
Recent polling by the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute — a conservative think tank — shows Democrats running strong in North Carolina’s legislative races. And while Republicans will likely keep majorities in both the House and Senate, they might not retain veto-proof “supermajorities.”
So, the GOP leadership seems to be going for broke, trying to push through amendments that will basically turn the governor into an honorary figurehead and invest power in the legislature forever.
One amendment would strip the governor of his power to fill court vacancies. Then there’s the separation of powers case. Hidden in an amendment to reshape the state elections board is a provision that the legislature “shall control the powers, duties, responsibilities, appointments and terms of office of any board or commission prescribed by general law.”
That would include not just the elections board, but also the Utilities Commission, Board of Transportation, Environmental Management Commission and most everything else. The governor appoints those members now.
This would be a huge usurpation of power and would knock important checks even further out of balance. It would almost certainly require the legislature to be in perpetual session (increasing the Honorables’ pay and emoluments, perhaps).
Mainly, though, it would result in bad governance. Given this legislature’s tendency to draw up bills in back rooms with no public debate, we can imagine the deal-making and favor-trading that would go into filling these powerful board seats.
Environmental groups are worried, for example, that the current crowd would pack the Environmental Management Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission and similar boards with developers who’d twist the rules to favor projects on the coast regardless of the impact or risk.
Yes, it’s goodbye to those pesky checks and balances our founders cherished.
We cannot tolerate this. It flies smack in the face of the spirit and wisdom of everything we celebrated last Wednesday. Wise North Carolina voters should vote “No” on this one.
— The StarNews of Wilmington