GOP legislators seek to take power from North Carolina’s Dem governor

GOP legislators seek to take power from North Carolina’s Dem governor
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North Carolina’s General Assembly on Monday will consider changes for two amendments that, if approved by voters in November, would dramatically shift the balance of power away from the governor and to the state legislature.

The amendments are part of a battle between the state’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both houses of the legislature.

The amendments would allow the legislature to claim more power over appointments to both open judicial seats and the state Board of Elections. At present, Cooper holds the power to appoint judges to vacant seats and to the Board of Elections.

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The special session, which began Friday and is expected to end Monday, comes after a panel of state Superior Court judges blocked the state Board of Elections from printing ballots over concerns about the wording to appear alongside each amendment.

The legislature has returned to Raleigh to fix that wording.

“It is definitely a power struggle between Republicans in the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper,” said Donald Bryson, executive director of the conservative-leaning Civitas Institute, a North Carolina think tank.

One of the amendments would create a nonpartisan Judicial Merit Commission to evaluate candidates for open judgeships. Members of the commission would be appointed by the governor, the legislature and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The other would give both Democratic and Republican members of the legislature the power to recommend members of the Board of Elections. The governor would still hold the power to appoint members of the commission, but they would be required to choose from the legislature’s approved list of candidates, effectively rendering that power meaningless.

Republicans behind the move to amend the state constitution say the changes are necessary because the current system gives the governor too much influence over the levers of government.

“There has been a lot of support when folks realize that at the present time the governor has no checks on his ability to fill vacancies,” said Phil Berger, the Republican president of the state Senate and an architect of the GOP’s electoral gains in North Carolina in recent years. “We think this is a more small-d democratic process.”

But to Democrats — and even to some former Republicans who held prominent positions in state politics — the proposed amendments smack of a partisan power grab. All five living former governors of North Carolina, including Republicans Jim Martin and Pat McCrory, oppose the amendments.

“It’s not about partisan politics, it’s about power politics. And it must be stopped,” Martin said last week.

In a statement, Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter called the proposed amendments “deceptive, unconstitutional and wrong.”

“Legislators are continuing their scheme to rip up our constitution to eliminate the separation of powers while also creating a deadlocked board of ethics that will protect legislators by stopping corruption investigations,” Porter said. “Legislators should be voting to protect our constitution instead of insulating themselves from ethics and corruption investigations.”

Observers say Republicans are worried about their grip on power, weeks before a midterm election in which even Berger acknowledged his party is running into headwinds. 

“This is part of what I think is the Democrats’ larger narrative of Republican overreach,” said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, a statewide think tank. “Republicans are trying to lock in some policy changes in advance of a feared loss of the real upper hand they’ve had over the last several cycles.”

“The remarkable change is that [Republicans] are so open and transparent about wanting” to claim more power, said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. “Republicans have been wanting to put their stamp on this state for over 100 years, and 2010 afforded them that ability. Redistricting gave them an insurance policy for a number of elections, and they are exercising as much power as they can.”

North Carolina’s Constitution has tilted the balance of power in favor of the legislature, rather than the governor, since it joined the other 12 colonies in forming the United States. Governors only won the power to seek a second term in the 1970s, and the legislature did not give governors the right to veto legislation until 1996.

“North Carolina was one of those states that was a hotbed of anti-federalism. Historically, people have been skeptical in North Carolina of having a strong central government,” Bryson said.

This is not the first time a legislature has tried to curtail the executive branch’s power when partisanship has come into play. When Democrats controlled the legislature in the late 1980s, they moved to strip power from the lieutenant governor’s office after Republican Jim Gardner won the position in 1988 — a move that, ironically, now gives Republican Senate President Berger his power today.

Nor is it the first time the current Republican legislature has tinkered with election laws. In 2013, the legislature passed a sweeping elections overhaul bill that required voters to show identification at the polls — a provision that was subsequently shot down by courts — and a host of other changes.

Last year, the legislature passed a measure to add party labels to candidates running for state Supreme Court. They subsequently eliminated primary contests for judicial elections, in hopes of keeping control of a swing seat on the state Supreme Court this year. But when a Republican qualified to run against Justice Barbara Jackson (R), the legislature tried to strip the party label after that candidate’s name, a move that candidate is now challenging in court.

Some Republicans have suggested that if the state Supreme Court — where Democrats hold a four-to-three majority — were to leave the two amendments off the ballot, the legislature might consider impeaching the justices.

At an event last week, North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said such a decision would lead to a constitutional crisis. In a post on Facebook later that day, he said there would be a reaction from voters and legislative members if the Supreme Court did not allow the amendments to proceed.

“That reaction could be re-amending the Constitution, censure, adding positions to the court and/or impeachment,” Woodhouse wrote.

Four other proposed constitutional amendments are already headed to the ballot in November, including measures to cap income taxes, protect the right to hunt and fish and to require voters to show identification at the polls. 

This year’s midterms mark what North Carolinians call a "blue moon" election, when neither a Senate seat nor the governorship is on the ballot to drive turnout. Republicans hope the ballot measures may be enough to drive voters to the polls and make up for a lack of energy among their core voters.

“There are some things that need to be done,” Berger said of the proposed amendments. “I believe they are popular. If that popularity causes more people to show up at the polls, I think that’s probably good overall. The more participation, the better.”