Under the Dome

Changes to the NC constitution have been rare lately, but that might change this month

In this 2013 file photo, a man walks alongside the state seal at the entrance to the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
In this 2013 file photo, a man walks alongside the state seal at the entrance to the Legislative Building in Raleigh. cseward@newsobserver.com

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger have dropped a few hints about what to expect during the legislative session that begins Jan. 10.

In separate interviews broadcast last week on Spectrum News’ “Capital Tonight,” Republican legislative leaders Berger and Moore said they could take action on constitutional amendments, GenX river contamination, Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointments to state boards, possible budget tweaks and judicial redistricting proposals.

Constitutional amendments

Since 1970, 46 constitutional amendments have been put on ballots for North Carolinians to vote on. The vast majority – 38 to be exact – have passed, according to records kept by the Legislative Library. In 1970, voters approved a measure that would revise the state constitution after the 1868 constitution had amassed 69 amendments and had become difficult to read. Voters approved the Constitution of 1971, along with five amendments (six were put on the ballot).

Between 1970 and 1986, there were 36 amendments slated to go onto the ballot – but only 35 made it, because another law repealed one of the proposed amendments. Since the 1990s, ballot initiatives have slowed down, with only three being put to a vote in the last decade.

This year, however, talk has been circulating about the need for multiple constitutional amendments. Moore told Spectrum News that constitutional amendments will likely be considered during this month’s session, although he didn't specify which ones.

According to the General Assembly’s legislative database, 24 bills have been filed that would affect the constitution. The bills range from placing term limits on legislators to changing how often judges across the state are elected.

The upcoming session on Jan. 10 has been billed by some lawmakers as a session to address constitutional amendments, but there is no guarantee that’s what legislators will be tackling. If it is, lawmakers will be strategic about what they’ll bring up, said Chris Cooper, a politics professor at Western Carolina University. Since 1971, about 83 percent of amendments put on the ballot have passed.

“Rejection is a lot rarer than passage. And I don’t think that's because voters always like change, I think it’s that legislators tend to only introduce things as constitutional amendments they know will pass,” Cooper said.

Cooper said past constitutional amendments have dealt with the “levers of power,” like whether the governor should have veto power. “Often they are about these kinds of ‘How are we governed’ issues as much as they’re about substantive policy areas.”

Cooper also said when the amendment is placed on the ballot plays a big role in whether the public votes for it. There’s no rule about when the amendment would need to be placed on the ballot – instead, lawmakers decide that during the bill drafting process. Most of the constitutional amendments being considered would be placed on the 2018 ballot – whether that be the primary or the general election in 2018.

“When these goes on the ballot are key,” Cooper said. “If it's on a November 2018 ballot, and most tend to be on even year ballots, we’re going to have higher turnout. It’s going to be a little bit harder to sway the vote, than if it were on an odd year that has lower turnout.”

Whether or not we see constitutional amendments come for a vote in January, Cooper noted that voters and political observers should be watching three things: “what gets passed, when is it put on the ballot, and what specifically does the wording request.”

Judicial changes

Polling from the conservative Civitas Institute in October found that 66 percent of people polled oppose a constitutional amendment that would end judicial elections and instead allow for judges to be appointed by government officials. Only 25 percent supported such an amendment.

Cooper said North Carolinians tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of electing judges. “I think the general feeling is that politics is something to be avoided and we want judges outside of politics and that elections breed the kind of politics we’re trying to avoid,” Cooper said. “Obviously the counter argument to that is that democracy is a good thing and some folks have done studies to say that judges that are elected actually perform a little bit better than those who are not.”

Both Berger and Moore voiced some uncertainty about whether proposed judicial changes will be ready for a vote this month. The House and Senate have separate maps for redrawing District Court and Superior Court districts, and a switch from elected to appointed judges is still under discussion.

“I don’t know if we’ll be ready at the time of Jan. 10 to move forward,” Berger told Spectrum. “I think it’s clear we're going to have to do something (on judicial districts). ... I don’t think it can wait until May.”

Moore told Spectrum that he doesn’t think merit selection has enough support yet to get the three-fifths majority vote required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, but he said he’d support a system in which the legislature appoints judges – “if the process is set up the right way, with input from the local communities. ... It works in Virginia, it works in South Carolina.”

But Berger said in the interview that he’d like a system that includes “participation or input from all branches of government” with “some component of popular involvement,” such as a retention election.

Could be delayed

Berger said the Senate is vetting some of Gov. Cooper’s appointments and expects to take action during the session.

Moore predicted a session of several days but floated the possibility that the entire session could be postponed.

“We may actually come into session and then recess until a later date,” he said in the Spectrum interview. “We don’t know yet. One thing we’re watching is to see if we need to do anything on legislative redistricting.”

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch