3 bad ideas NC legislators might want to put into the state constitution

The Observer editorial board

A way of life potentially under siege?
A way of life potentially under siege? MCT file photo

Remember when North Carolina’s legislators voted to enshrine discrimination into the state constitution and voters joined them?

That effort to ban gay marriage – which took place in 2012, not 1912 or 1812 – didn’t work out too well. It was an embarrassment for the state as the rest of the nation was becoming increasingly enlightened about gay rights, and it was quickly rendered unconstitutional by federal courts.

Now the state’s legislators are going down a similar road. They are poised to consider three state constitutional amendments this spring. One would be harmless but pointless, and two would be very bad policy.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, detailed the proposals in a Facebook chat with constituents this week. One amendment, he said, would declare that the state income tax can never rise above 5.5 percent. Another would require voter ID in N.C. elections. And the third would protect North Carolinians’ right to hunt and fish. Let’s consider why each is dangerous or unnecessary despite a good amount of public support.

Current law establishes that the state income tax cannot be higher than 10 percent. The current tax rate is 5.499 percent. Republican legislators, worried that someday they will be out of power, want to lock in that maximum 5.5 percent rate in perpetuity.

That may sound appealing on the surface, but it sets an arbitrary rate disconnected from conditions in the state for generations to come. Who knows what economic circumstances will be, what population growth will look like, what the state’s revenue model will look like down the road? Handcuffing future legislators to block them from responding to then-current conditions lays the groundwork for financial crises.

There is no voter ID amendment on the table yet, and the details matter. North Carolina’s legislators have repeatedly crafted legislation aimed not at combatting voter fraud but at setting up obstacles to vote for constituencies that generally don’t support Republicans. A federal appeals court found that the state’s voter ID law was designed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Steinburg dismissed that ruling as coming from “very liberal jurists” who were “trying to do everything they could to maybe be loosey-goosey with the laws.” But one of the judges was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, and the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear legislators’ appeal.

The state elections board last year found that there is virtually zero in-person voter fraud. And this constitutional amendment would likely be a maneuver to take another bite from what the courts said was a forbidden apple.

The amendment to protect the right to hunt and fish, Steinburg acknowledged, “might seem kind of silly.” “Hunting and fishing aren’t currently under threat,” he said. But “one never knows just exactly what the future’s going to bring and what privileges and rights that we currently have might be taken from us.”

He’s right, of course. And so we propose constitutional amendments to protect the people’s right to play dodge ball, and to snooze in church and to squeeze the Charmin. One never knows what rights might be taken away in the future.