North Carolina's five living former governors on Monday delivered an extraordinary rebuke of the Republican-dominated legislature for two constitutional amendments it put on fall ballots, saying they would shred gubernatorial power and government checks and balances if approved.
The ex-governors − three Democrats and two Republicans who served a combined 40 years − gathered for a rare appearance in the old Capitol, urging voters to defeat the referendums, among the six that lawmakers are submitting to voters.
Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue and Republicans Jim Martin and Pat McCrory served from 1977 through 2016. Some would appear to be unlikely allies. Perdue narrowly defeated McCrory in the 2008 gubernatorial election.
"This is not about partisan politics. It's about power politics. And it must be stopped," Martin said. "It may seem brilliant − I would say deviously brilliant − that they now propose to put these amendments to the constitution that would give them absolute power over both the executive and judicial branches."
Added McCrory, "Don't hijack our constitution, especially though deceitful and misleading amendments that will be on the ballot, which attempt to fool the citizens of our great state."
Current Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper didn't attend, but has sued to prevent votes on the amendments this November. He contends the questions are so false and misleading as to be unconstitutional themselves.
Later this week, a three-judge panel will hear legal requests from Cooper and from interest groups that sued to get four questions off the ballots.
"I'm going to say to you personally, that it is embarrassing to me after a career devoted to building a healthier more competitive two-party system in our state, that it is a legislature controlled by my Republican party that has hatched this scheme," said Martin.
The rare public appearance by the former governors emphasized the stakes in the litigation, and the potential rebalance of powers between the three branches of government if the amendments are approved. Governors would no longer have sole power to filling judicial vacancies and would be cut out of making appointments to the state elections board and possibly other key state boards and commissions.
In response, leaders in the General Assembly said they would move forward with the proposed amendments. Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore released a joint statement critical of the former governors. "While it's not surprising former governors oppose checks and balances on the unilateral authority of their office, we are confident the people will support a more accountable approach to filling judicial vacancies and approve a bipartisan balance on critical boards like the state’s ethics and elections commission over a system of purely political control," according to the joint statement.
One amendment would shift control of filling vacant judgeships away from the governor, who currently has sole decision-making authority for most judicial positions, toward the legislature. Instead, the governor would have to choose from at least two recommended candidates coming from a pool deemed qualified by a "nonpartisan judicial merit" commission. The legislature would fill the vacancy if the governor doesn't.
The question on ballot says the new system would rely "on professional qualifications instead of political influence when nominating justices and judges," but opponents say that's not true, insisting lawmakers would just pick friends and political allies.
The second amendment would give appointment powers over the state elections and ethics board to the legislature. The governor has made the appointments for over 100 years, but lawmakers have tried to wrest that control from Cooper since he was elected in November 2016.
The amendment also would state that the legislature controls the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates. Republicans call this clarifying language after a pair of state Supreme Court rulings − one initiated by Cooper and another by McCrory, Martin and Hunt − that found lawmakers retained too much power over several state panels.
But the governors and Democratic legislators say it would give the General Assembly tremendous power to appoint members to hundreds of boards and commissions, especially those where the governor gets to appoint some or most of the members.
North Carolina's governor has been historically one of the nation's weakest, becoming the last state chief executive to receive veto power in 1997. But the veto stamp doesn't apply to constitutional amendments.
Other amendments on fall ballots would mandate photo identification to vote in person, lower the maximum income tax rate allowed from 10 percent to 7 percent, create a right to hunt and fish and expand the rights of crime victims.
Republican legislators, who have been in charge of the General Assembly since 2011, hope some of the amendment questions will attract conservative voters to the polls and help them retain their majorities. But it could backfire with the governors' opposition. The state Democratic Party also has decided to oppose all six amendments.