@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Elections board, appointments amendment on the ballot

Posted June 27, 2018 7:07 p.m. EDT
Updated June 27, 2018 9:12 p.m. EDT

— The state Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the state elections board is appointed and to assert legislative control over membership of a slew of boards normally appointed by the governor.

Democrats cried foul over the bill, with state Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, offering a tongue-in-cheek amendment at one point "that strips all power from the administration and transfers power to the GA," which is short for General Assembly.

It failed.

The original bill cleared the state Senate 32-14, a largely party-line vote. It had already passed the House and will be before voters this November. It takes three-fifths support in the legislature and a statewide referendum to change the state constitution, and this is one of six proposed amendments the Republican majority is working to finalize before adjourning the session at the end of this week.

This amendment, contained in House Bill 913, is a legislative response to a series of lawsuits arguing separation-of-powers issues between the General Assembly and the executive branch. Some of those fights go back to former Gov. Pat McCrory's administration.

The legislature has reworked the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement several times, and this proposal would cut the governor out of the appointments process altogether, creating a board with eight members, four chosen by the minority leadership in the state House and Senate and four by the majority leaders.

Democrats complained that the new format, whittled down from the current membership of nine, will lead to deadlocks.

A separate section of the bill is broader in effect, making it clear that the legislature controls "the powers, duties, responsibilities, appointments and terms of office of any board or commission prescribed by general law." Though GOP leaders have said they don't want to take control of the hundreds of gubernatorial appointments this could affect, they acknowledge that the bill would allow future legislatures to do so.

The legislature, Republicans argue, has always been the dominant branch of government in North Carolina, and this amendment would clarify a matter that has come up in various recent lawsuits.

Democrats called it a power grab.

"History tells us that, when legislative bodies are left unchecked, they become pirates, tyrants," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said. "Legislatures need to be kept in check."

Republicans took issue with the language. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, wanted to know: How does a board of elections keep the legislature in check?

"Do they change the elections?" asked Hise. "Or the elections' outcome, or find fake ethics violations? ... Should a governor be able to weaponize that power?"

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, spoke to the same subject.

"The governor's going to keep us in check?" he asked. "I believe 170 people will be keeping the governor in check."

The North Carolina General Assembly has 170 members: 50 in the Senate and 120 in the House.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger pointed during the debate to a letter Cooper's in-house attorney sent the elections board during one of the lawsuits between the administration and the legislature, telling board staff to "refrain from taking any substantive action" until the case was decided.

The letter sparked concerns at the board at the time, and it gave Republicans ammunition for the current legislative push.

"No governor should have that power," Berger, R-Rockingham, said Wednesday. "No governor should think they have that power."

Voters will be asked whether they favor a "constitutional amendment to establish a bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections to administer ethics and election laws, to clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches, and to prohibit legislators from serving on boards and commissions exercising executive or judicial authority."

Democrats complained that the question is unclear, and won't tell voters how much power they'll be transferring to the legislature. Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, offered amendments on the floor and in committee to change the language, but the Republican majority voted them down.