Raleigh was buzzing Tuesday over a proposal that would overhaul the state Board of Elections. Almost lost in the debate was a separate provision in the bill that eviscerates the balance of powers enshrined in North Carolina’s constitution since 1776.
For 242 years, Article I, Section 6 of the constitution has declared that “the legislative, executive and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.”
That bedrock survived multiple rewrites of the constitution over the centuries. Now the legislature is poised to erase that separation of powers with one swift kick.
A fundamental way the governor and the legislature have kept each other in check is by having the General Assembly make the laws and the governor appointing members of executive-branch boards and commissions and influencing their work. Besides the elections board, the governor’s appointment power to panels such as the Utilities Commission, the Board of Transportation, the Environmental Management Commission and scores of others has provided an important check on the legislature’s power.
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But the House voted 74-44 on Tuesday for a constitutional amendment reshaping the elections board. Lower down in the bill is this line: “The legislative powers of the State government shall control the powers, duties, responsibilities, appointments and terms of office of any board or commission prescribed by general law.”
In other words, the legislature has all the power; the governor has none. It would effectively eliminate the separation of powers North Carolina has observed since the state’s founding. It would also make it impossible for the governor to carry out another requirement put upon him by the constitution: to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." He can do so only through the people he appoints to execute them.
The Senate was poised to vote on the provision Tuesday. If 30 senators agree, the amendment will go to voters in November. The catch? The question on the ballot won’t mention any of this. The only reference to this provision will say it’s an amendment “to clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and Judicial branches.” Yes, it will clarify it all right.
The public’s opposition to this should not be grounded in partisan concerns. This amendment will stand in perpetuity, while the parties controlling the executive and legislative branches will come and go. Rather, opposition should stem from the essentiality of checks and balances. This amendment is part of a years-long, multi-pronged effort by the General Assembly to seize power and further weaken what is already one of the weaker governor’s offices in America.
Right now it is aimed at Cooper. Just two years ago, legislative leaders were battling Gov. Pat McCrory, a fellow Republican, on similar lines. They lost that case before the N.C. Supreme Court. That cannot stand, they think, so they now seek to rewrite the constitution itself.
It’s all part of a larger cynical strategy: Put a half-dozen constitutional amendments on the November ballot to gin up Republican turnout and stem the losses they expect to incur in a Democratic-friendly election. If it causes great damage to the state, so be it, they think; at least it preserves their power for a little longer.