Torrent of constitutional amendments provide exclamation points on a dreadful legislative session

By: - June 26, 2018 5:30 am

In November 2018, NC voters approved four of six proposed constitutional amendments.

A short-timer. In the military (and many civilian workplaces too) a short-timer is someone who is nearing the end of his or her term of service. Often, the term is used pejoratively to describe individuals who shirk new or difficult tasks as they cruise toward the exit door.

In the political realm, however, there are occasions in which short-timers pursue an opposite tack. Sometimes, when faced with the prospect of defeat in an upcoming election or, at least, a significant loss of power or status, short-timer politicians aim to enact as many new law and policy changes as they possibly can in the limited time they have remaining.

As the 2018 state legislative session careens this week toward what looks to be a wild and woolly conclusion, it’s hard not to see this latter scenario at work in Raleigh.

Simply put, if the predictions of most pollsters and pundits come true this fall, it’s extremely likely that Republicans will lose their supermajority control of the General Assembly in at least one, and quite possibly both, houses. If this happens, of course, their power to override gubernatorial vetoes and amend the constitution (both of which require 3/5 votes) will be dramatically reduced, along with their power to enact laws opposed by Democrats.

And so it is that North Carolinians find themselves in the last week of June trying to get some kind of a handle on a veritable torrent of proposals cascading through the legislature to amend the state constitution. The list of fundamental changes to state law that Republicans would permanently enshrine is stunning – both in terms of its length and breadth.

The list includes:

  • An extraordinarily vague proposal to permanently require all in-person voters in North Carolina to produce photo identification in order to cast their ballot;
  • A proposal to permanently cap the state income tax;
  • A proposal to transfer the authority to control the filling of judicial vacancies from the governor to the legislature;
  • An amendment to remove the governor’s power to appoint the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and vest it in the General Assembly;
  • A lengthy series of changes to state criminal law that purport to bolster “victims’ rights”; and
  • A proposal to assure that North Carolinians have the right to use “traditional methods” to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife,

The list of problems with each of these proposals is long and significant.

In addition to its vagueness – a reality that’s sure to give rise to lots more extended litigation – the voter ID amendment is an expensive, wasteful and utterly unnecessary proposal that clearly constitutes yet another effort to make voting harder for poor people and voters of color, who tend to lack photo ID.

The income tax proposal would lock in the state’s regressive tax structure, badly hamstring state officials in their efforts to fund core services and, inevitably, lead to hikes in sales and property taxes that disproportionately impact poor and middle class North Carolinians.

The changes to filling judicial vacancies and appointments to the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement have little, if anything, to do with good government and are clearly just the latest in a long and growing line of blatant power grabs by legislative leaders.

“Marsy’s Law” – the name given to the proposal on victims’ rights, likely contains a mixture of helpful and potentially problematic provisions, but as Policy Watch recently reported, it’s being advanced with little, if any, attention being devoted to its potential cost to the state budget – something that could be significant.

Meanwhile, the hunting and fishing amendment is an embarrassingly transparent attempt to rouse conservative and rural voters that constitutes the proverbial “solution in search of a problem.” Add to this the vagueness of the proposal – no one can even say for sure what “traditional methods” of hunting and fishing are – and the whole proposal becomes that much more ridiculous.

But, of course, what makes this spasm of constitution-altering legislation truly pernicious is the way it’s coming about. The list would still be objectionable even if each proposal had been the subject of extended testimony from (and cross-examination of) multiple experts over many weeks or months that featured multiple opportunities for members of the public to weigh in at venues around the state.

That it was, rather (as seems always to be the case with the General Assembly in recent years), produced largely in secret and, in many instances, cut from whole cloth and sprung on lawmakers and an unsuspecting public during the final hours of a hectic and contentious session is, quite simply, an outrage.

The bottom line: A harried and hurried end-of-session blitz is simply no way to set the stage for enshrining permanent changes in the state constitution. Let’s hope voters take this into account when and if they’re asked to pass judgment on the list come November.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

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