The first meeting of a state commission responsible for explaining constitutional amendments to voters turned into a nearly hour-long criticism of some of the proposals.
Voters will see six proposed changes to the state constitution on their ballots this fall. The Republican-led Legislature pushed them onto the ballot, despite Democratic legislators’ objections to some of them.
Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, both Democrats and members of the Constitutional Amendment Publication Commission, bashed some of the proposed amendments, raising points that were muted or absent from legislative debates. The third commission member, Republican Paul Coble, did not attend the meeting, which gave Stein and Marshall the chance to offer their views without rebuttal.
Stein described one of the amendments as “the most radical restructuring of our government in more than 100 years, since the Civil War. It would essentially give the Legislature the power to run the executive branch.”
A 2016 law gave the three-member commission the job of writing short titles for proposed constitutional amendments that would appear on ballots. Since the 1980s, the commission has had responsibility for writing descriptions of the amendments that will be distributed to voters before they cast ballots. The Legislature took the title-writing job away last week in a law passed in a special session. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the law. The Legislature is returning Saturday to override that veto and one other. Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both the state House and Senate.
The commission still has the job of writing descriptions of the amendments that will appear in the State Board of Elections judicial voters guide. Those printed guides are distributed to local boards of election and millions of voters. They were to begin that process at Tuesday’s meeting.
Coble, the legislative services officer, sent word Monday afternoon that he would not attend the meeting. In an email to Marshall and Stein, Coble said he did not want to meet before Saturday “as to further avoid politicizing the work of the Commission and to avoid additional controversy.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, sent Marshall a letter Tuesday calling the meeting a “spectacle.”
“I find it deeply concerning that your working session with Attorney General Josh Stein this morning was laden with partisan attacks on the substance of this year’s proposed Constitutional amendments,” Berger wrote. “It’s reasonable to conclude that the intent of this morning’s meeting was simply to regurgitate the Democratic Party’s partisan political talking points surrounding the ballot initiative rather than faithfully execute the Commission’s mandate to inform the public without partisan considerations.”
Stein highlighted what he called deceptive ballot language that will describe two of the amendments. One amendment would change the way people are appointed to boards and commissions. The other would change how judges are appointed to fill vacancies.
It’s like voters buying a beautiful birthday cake, Stein said, “going home to eat it, and it’s cat food.”
Marshall described the ballot questions as “a Trojan horse or a pig in a poke.”
The ballot question on “establishing a Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections” and “clarifying appointment authority of the Legislative and Judicial branches” would take away the governor’s power to appoint members to boards and commissions and put it in the hands of the Legislature, Stein said. He said it is “disingenuous” to use the word “clarify.”
Moreover, the Legislature could appoint commissions to dictate operations at executive branch offices, Stein said.
The amendment for a “nonpartisan merit-based system” to fill judicial vacancies would give the Legislature the authority to determine who is qualified to be a judge, Stein said, and limit the governor’s role.
The law underlying the ballot question would also limit the governor’s veto power, Stein said. The law says the governor cannot veto the Legislature’s judicial recommendations. So, the Legislature could put the recommendations into a bigger bill, the budget for example, to prevent a veto.
“This is the most deceptive and misleading budget caption of them all,” Stein said. “They’re voting on saccharine sweet candy language that is not real.”
The proposed constitutional amendments:
▪ Require voters to present photo ID.
▪ Set a 7 percent ceiling on the state income tax, lowering the cap from 10 percent. 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 for victims of felony crimes.