Heads up: Legislative leaders plot still more destructive power grabs

By: - May 1, 2018 5:00 am

After having exercised seven-plus years of relentless, “take no prisoners” rule and with pollsters and pundits forecasting a tough election year for the allies of Donald Trump, you’d think that North Carolina’s legislative leaders might be in a mood to choose a slightly more moderate path during the upcoming legislative “short” session that commences May 16.

Think again.

The word from insiders at the General Assembly is that GOP House and Senate leaders have instead all but finalized plans to use the latter days of their endangered supermajorities to advance as many as three cynical and/or highly destructive state constitutional amendments during the session. The amendments would: 1) permanently cap the state income tax rate, 2) impose a new photo identification requirement to vote, and 3) establish a state constitutional right to hunt and fish. The apparent plan is to pass all three and place them on the November general election ballot.

From a substantive perspective, there are numerous strong reasons to be opposed to this agenda – especially the tax cap and voter ID proposals (more on those below). As a practical matter, however, the real hallmark of these proposals is not their substance (or lack thereof), but the anti-democratic cynicism that they represent.

Simply put, the state constitution in North Carolina is not designed to be a document in which to work out complex, highly technical and time-sensitive policy and funding debates. It is not the place, for instance, to negotiate the size of the state budget or to work out the fine details of election procedures.

Neither should it be a place to limit individual rights like voting rights (see the recent ill-fated attempts to proscribe same-sex marriage) or memorialize symbolic statements that have little relationship to real world issues and that serve only to confuse when it comes to writing actual and enforceable laws.

To the contrary, the constitution ought to be a document that guarantees basic, real world individual rights, establishes the broad parameters of the relationship between citizens and their government and is amended with only the greatest of care.

There are lots of reasons that this is the case – not the least of which is the massive challenge of providing voters with all of the details they need in order to weigh the pluses and minuses of highly complex policy proposals. This is especially true given that the language of any amendment will be drawn by only one side in the debate, with no explanation as to its real, long-term policy implications made available to voters.

If, however, one’s goal is to cement the power of current legislative leaders who stand on the brink of losing their supermajorities, constitutional amendments of this kind are a perfect, scorched earth vehicle.

First of all, the governor has no role whatsoever in approving constitutional amendments for the ballot.

Second, by passing the amendments to permanently cap the state income tax rate and permanently mandate a photo ID requirement for voting, lawmakers will lock in right-wing policies that will bind and handicap future state leaders and prevent them from giving effect to the policy platforms on which they are elected – no matter the real world circumstances of future eras.

And third is the blatant political cynicism involved – particularly in the hunting and fishing amendment. Such a proposal clearly has nothing to do with any real world threat to either hunting or fishing and is designed only to drive turnout amongst the GOP’s conservative rural base of voters. What’s next – a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the public’s right to eat red meat and listen to country music?

Even, however, if one sets aside the cynical politics involved, there are lots of powerful substantive reasons to oppose the tax and voting amendments.

The income tax cap is essentially a giveaway to millionaires (the group that’s already received massive tax breaks since 2013) since it would limit the most progressive component of the state tax system and almost certainly give rise to regressive sales and/or property tax hikes on working and middle class families to keep schools and other basic services functioning. That’s what’s happened in many other states.

Meanwhile, the voter ID proposal seeks to address a minuscule problem (voter fraud) with a “solution” that would disenfranchise thousands upon thousands of voters who lack driver’s licenses. Like the tax scheme, it sounds superficially appealing on some level, but would be horribly destructive in its real world effects.

The bottom line: The days may be numbered for North Carolina’s conservative legislative supermajorities, but it appears that current leaders at the General Assembly are prepared to use all possible tactics at hand to wreak as much policy havoc as possible before they depart.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.