A proposal to combine North Carolina’s elections, ethics and lobbyist regulation, among other provisions, was approved in the Senate on Thursday.
Republican legislators who wrote Senate Bill 4 describe it as an effort to make elections oversight bipartisan. But the result would be to deprive the incoming Democratic administration of control of state and county elections boards.
After Senate Republicans won a 30-16 vote along party lines, the bill was sent to the House.
The Republican-led General Assembly called itself into special session on Wednesday and has been considering major changes to state government operations.
SB 4 would replace the current State Board of Elections with the current eight-member State Ethics Commission. The new board would assume lobbying regulation duties from the Secretary of State. It would be run by the current director of the state elections office, Kim Strach, until a new board is seated in July and choses a director.
The current state Board of Elections has five members, three of whom are Republican. The Ethics Commission has eight members, four of whom are Republican.
The five members of the state Board of Elections are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees submitted by Republican and Democratic parties. No more than three can be from the same party, which gives the incumbent party an advantage.
Three-member county boards are chosen by the state board with no more than two from the same party.
The bill would make the state board an eight-member board, with four appointments by the governor and four by the legislature. It would create four-member county boards also evenly divided between the two major parties.
The chair of the new board would alternate between parties every year.
“We’ve just gone through unquestionably one of the most acrimonious election seasons that I’ve ever seen,” Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, told the Senate Finance Committee. “The foundation of the administration of the election itself was being questioned. There was partisan motivation behind it. People’s characters were impugned.”
Why not, Lewis said, make a significant step toward bipartisanship? Lewis said he and others have worked on the concept for several years.
Democrats said they liked the bipartisan concept but contend that provisions in this bill and another one amount to an eroding of the new governor’s ability to control appointments. Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, who defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by a razor-thin margin Nov. 8, takes office in January.
“It’s the totality of the circumstances,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham. “It appears the sole purpose is to undercut the power and authority of Roy Cooper before he takes office.”
Republicans counter that this is the best time, in a somewhat dormant political season.
“In the political climate today no governor would do this,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Union County. “I don’t think Gov. Cooper would want this done. I don’t think Gov. McCrory would have done this when he was coming in.”
Another provision in SB4 would give McCrory the authority to appoint someone to fill a current vacancy on the Industrial Commission. The commission hears appeals of worker compensation cases.
The appointment would be a full six-year term in addition to the remainder of an unexpired term. Currently, vacancies are filled only for the remainder of a term.
The bill would also allow the governor to appoint a chairman to a term every four years on Dec. 30.
The bill would also apply political party designations to candidates running for the Supreme Court. And it would allow the entire 15-judge Court of Appeals to hear appeals from trial court rulings rather than in three-judge panels, as is currently done.
Republicans acknowledged that it could create an additional step for those appealing rulings by requiring certain cases to go first through the Court of Appeals rather than be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.
In January, the Supreme Court will flip from a Republican to a Democratic 4-3 majority. The Court of Appeals has a Republican majority.