Lawmakers return to write constitutional amendment ballot descriptions
The state legislature will return to Raleigh on Tuesday to write short introductions to six constitutional amendments after high-ranking Republicans voiced suspicions about a special three-member commission responsible for writing them.
The legislature “must prevent outside attempts to politicize what should be a quick and straightforward administrative process by the commission,” House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement Monday announcing the special session.
The Republican-led legislature moved to put six constitutional amendments on the fall ballot, and some are controversial. For example, one proposed change would strip the governor of appointment powers, while another would require voters show photo ID when they go to the polls.
A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper questioned Republicans’ motives.
Republicans want to hide what the constitutional changes would do, Ford Porter, Cooper’s spokesman, said in a memo to reporters.
“Republicans want to deceive voters about their proposed constitutional amendments that rig the system in their favor by suppressing the vote, picking their own judges and appointing their own regulators who will hurt clean water and education,” Porter wrote.
Two of the three members of the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission are Democrats — Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein. Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble rounds out the group.
The commission is responsible for writing captions that appear before the ballot questions. The wording of the questions themselves are in the laws.
The commission also writes explanations of the proposed amendments that are made available to the public.
Rep. David Lewis said in a letter to Moore over the weekend that he was concerned the commission was under pressure to “politicize” the descriptions.
The commission solicited recommendations for proposed language and scheduled a meeting for July 31.
Marshall, who chairs the commission, said in an email to Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger that she was “astonished” at Lewis’s letter, and that no outside groups were pressuring her.
“The bottom-line is the Commission is at work, is accomplishing its assigned task, and it will produce the quickest solution to satisfy this year’s ballot deadline,” Marshall wrote.
Moore told reporters Monday that he had not seen Marshall’s letter, and said he did not know first-hand of any attempts to politicize the ballot captions.
“It’s all second-hand,” he said. “There have been conversations among a number of legislators.”
If the commission did something the legislature didn’t like close to the Aug. 8 deadline, lawmakers wouldn’t have time to react, he said. Lawmakers need to pass legislation by Tuesday or Wednesday to make sure their versions of the amendment descriptions make it on to the ballot, Moore said.
“Nobody thought this would be an issue,” he said. “The fact that it’s being turned around in some way is mind-boggling.”
The proposed constitutional amendments:
- Require voters to present photo ID.
- Set a 7 percent ceiling on the state income tax. The personal income tax rate is now 5.499 percent.
- Give legislators a major role in choosing who should fill judicial vacancies, limiting the governor’s power.
- Protect hunting and fishing, and make hunting and fishing “a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”
- Have the legislature choose eight members to make up the Bipartisan State Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement, with nominees coming from each party. Take away the governor’s power to appoint members to nearly 400 boards, and give that power to the legislature.
- Add rights in the legal system to victims of felony crimes.
If lawmakers approve caption wording and stay in session, Cooper will have 10 days after the day the bill is transmitted to him to veto it. The legislature could then return to override the veto.
A veto is possible, Moore said, so the legislature may have so-called skeleton sessions that only a handful of members attend in case lawmakers need to return for a veto override.
Then there’s the commission charged with writing the captions.
Moore said the legislature did not plan this week to change the commission.
If the legislature doesn’t somehow negate the caption-writing commission’s duties for this year, the state could end up with competing versions of the amendment descriptions, said Gerry Cohen, former general counsel to the General Assembly.
“There are so many scenarios,” Cohen said. “It depends on what the bills say.”
“If people want to litigate this, one thing the state courts could do is take it off the ballot,” Cohen said. The North Carolina Supreme Court removed a proposed constitutional amendment from the ballot in 1934, he said.