Bal­lot mea­sure would weaken the power of NC gov­er­nor

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY JIM MORRILL jmor­[email protected]­lot­teob­

By most mea­sures, North Carolina al­ready has one of Amer­ica’s weak­est gov­er­nors. Now ex­perts say a new bal­lot mea­sure would take away even more power.

The mea­sure, passed by a Repub­li­can-con­trolled leg­is­la­ture, takes aim at Demo­cratic Gov. Roy Cooper. But the un­der­ly­ing ten­sions it re­flects go be­yond party.

That’s why three for­mer gov­er­nors are join­ing Cooper in op­pos­ing a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would give the Gen­eral Assem­bly more power at the gov­er­nor’s ex­pense.

“The leg­is­la­ture should be mak­ing laws, not run­ning the govern­ment,” said for­mer Gov. Jim Martin, a Repub­li­can. “You have to de­feat (the amend­ment). You have to kill a snake at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity.”

The amend­ment, passed this week by the leg­is­la­ture, would cre­ate a new Bi­par­ti­san State Board of Ethics and Elec­tions En­force­ment. Its eight mem­bers would be ap­pointed by the leg­is­la­ture. Cur- rently the gov­er­nor names peo­ple to the board.

But if passed by vot­ers, the amend­ment also would give the leg­is­la­ture power to make ap­point­ments to nearly 400 boards that over­see ev­ery­thing from the en­vi­ron­ment to pub­lic health to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Those boards shape poli­cies that af­fect vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one in the state.

“It’s a bla­tant power grab from the ex­ec­u­tive branch,” said for­mer GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.

For­mer Gov. Jim Hunt, a Demo­crat, said he “to- tally op­poses it.” A gov­er­nor of ei­ther party, he said, bet­ter re­flects “the peo­ple as a whole.”

The mea­sure is one of six con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments on the fall bal­lot. Oth­ers would cap the state in­come tax, ex­pand the rights of crime vic­tims and re­quire vot­ers to have an ID. That’s the most amend­ments on a sin­gle bal­lot since the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion was adopted in 1971.

John Di­nan, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Wake For­est Univer­sity, said North Carolina’s gov­er­nor, who shares ex­ec­u­tive power with an in­de­pen­dently elected Coun­cil of State, is one of the na­tion’s five weak­est chief ex­ec­u­tives. That’s de­spite court de­ci­sions that have reaf­firmed the gov­er­nor’s ap­point­ment pow­ers.

Two years ago, for ex­am­ple, the state Supreme

Court gave then-Gov. McCrory a vic­tory when it ruled that he, not law­mak­ers, had the power to name mem­bers of the Coal Ash Man­age­ment and two other com­mis­sions.

“If the pro­posed amend­ment were to be rat­i­fied, this would es­sen­tially re­verse these re­cent state court de­ci­sions and snuff out re­cent state court ef­forts to . . . boost the gov­er­nor’s power in the area of ap­point­ments,” Di­nan said.

Un­like North Carolina, some gov­er­nors have lineitem veto. Oth­ers con­trol ad­min­is­tra­tion spend­ing, while in North Carolina it’s the leg­is­la­ture that does that. And in some states, the gov­er­nor and lieu­tenant gov­er­nor run as a team. North Carolina’s lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, Dan For­est, is a Repub­li­can.


Ten­sion be­tween leg­is­la­tors and gov­er­nors is noth­ing new.

Dat­ing back gen­er­a­tions, it has per­sisted with the evolv­ing role of both gov­er­nors and law­mak­ers. In 1982, the state Supreme Court ruled in Hunt’s fa­vor in a case in­volv­ing leg­isla­tive ap­point­ments to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment Com­mis­sion.

When Martin was elected in 1984, Demo­cratic law­mak­ers sought to stymie his ap­point­ments. One House mem­ber even tried to call for a ref­er­en­dum on a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to re­peal the gov­er­nor’s abil­ity to seek a sec­ond term.

When Martin did win a sec­ond term in 1988, Jim Gard­ner was elected the first Repub­li­can lieu­tenant gov­er­nor since the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Demo­cratic sen­a­tors promptly stripped many of the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor’s pow­ers.

This isn’t even the first time the leg­is­la­ture has tried to limit Cooper’s pow­ers.

Af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, but be­fore Cooper took of­fice, law­mak­ers stripped the gov­er­nor of the power to ap­point mem­bers to the boards of trustees for schools in the UNC sys­tem, re­duced the num­ber of ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­point­ments from 1,500 to 300, and re­quired the gov­er­nor’s new cabi­net sec­re­taries to be con­firmed by the Se­nate.

This year Repub­li­cans, who con­trol the leg­is­la­ture, ar­gued that the Gen­eral Assem­bly has long been the state’s dom­i­nant branch of govern­ment. Not un­til the 1970s did Hunt be­come the first gov­er­nor who could run for a sec­ond term. And it wasn’t un­til the 1990s that the gov­er­nor — again un­der Hunt — won lim­ited veto power.

Democrats ar­gued that the bal­lot amend­ment would make the leg­is­la­ture too strong.

“His­tory tells us that, when leg­isla­tive bod­ies are left unchecked, they be­come pi­rates, tyrants,” Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh told col­leagues. “Leg­is­la­tures need to be kept in check.”

“The gov­er­nor’s go­ing to keep us in check?” replied Repub­li­can Sen. Jerry Till­man of Ran­dolph County. “I be­lieve 170 (law­mak­ers) will be keep­ing the gov­er­nor in check.”


Gerry Co­hen, a for­mer long-time leg­isla­tive of­fi­cial, said the pro­posed amend­ment on ap­point­ment pow­ers would take the re­la­tion­ship be­tween North Carolina’s gov­er­nor and Gen­eral Assem­bly back — al­most two cen­turies.

“It’s quite a ma­jor change,” he said. “We’re al­most back to 1838 where the leg­is­la­ture would ap­point the gov­er­nor. We’re get­ting close to pre-1838.”

Molly Dig­gins, state di­rec­tor of the Sierra Club, called it “a whole­sale change in the bal­ance of power.”

“The (Repub­li­can) ma­jor­ity has been re­lent­less in rolling back en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions,” she said. “It would broaden the leg­is­la­ture’s reach if it also had over­due in­flu­ence on rule-mak­ing.”

Char­lotte at­tor­ney John Wester was one of the lawyers who suc­cess­fully de­fended the gov­er­nor’s pow­ers in the McCrory case. He said a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment, un­like a sim­ple law, would make any sub­se­quent le­gal chal­lenges prob­lem­atic.

“If this mea­sure passes and the pub­lic ac­cepted it I be­lieve you would trans­form the gov­er­nor’s con­sti­tu­tional duty to faith­fully ex­e­cute the laws into an elon­gated episode of ‘May I,’” said Wester, a for­mer N.C. Bar As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent.

Martin, the for­mer GOP gov­er­nor, said leg­is­la­tors would be happy with a weaker gov­er­nor.

“He’d be a nice fig­ure­head, which is what the Gen­eral Assem­bly wants,” Martin said. “They’d be very happy to have a gov­er­nor who would go around mak­ing speeches, cut­ting rib­bons and stay­ing out of the way.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

For­mer Gov. Pat McCrory

For­mer Gov. Jim Martin

For­mer Gov. Jim Hunt


By most mea­sures, North Carolina al­ready has one of Amer­ica's weak­est gov­er­nors. Now ex­perts say a new bal­lot mea­sure would take away even more power.

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