Amendments Are Ballot Twist In NC Power Struggle

Jul 19, 2018

File photo of a voting sign in Chapel Hill during the Nov. 2016 election.
Credit Amy Townsend / WUNC

In closely divided North Carolina, an intense power struggle between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will shift from the General Assembly and courts to voting booths this fall.

All 170 legislative seats are up for election in November, and Democrats angry with the state's rightward shift this decade are raising a huge war chest for their campaigns.

"People are tired of the legislature shortchanging public education, clean air and water and health care, and I think this will be a big year for challengers against incumbents," Cooper told reporters recently.

Republicans consider the state's robust economy, which they say is fueled by state GOP tax cuts and less regulation, their strongest midterm asset. But they added a twist by putting six constitutional amendments on the fall ballot, which could boost conservative voter turnout.

"The economy is the driver of any election," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Onslow County. He said the Democrats' strategy has been simply to "argue against anything that we do as Republicans but ... they haven't had a better answer."

Despite rulings that twice struck down General Assembly boundaries, redrawn lines still favor the GOP in the state that narrowly elected Cooper and chose Republican Donald Trump for president in 2016.

The national electoral mood on Trump will still be the key factor in who turns out to vote this fall in North Carolina, said Mac McCorkle, a political consultant to two previous Democratic governors.

The six constitutional amendments are the wild card.

They rankle Democrats because some would wrest even more power from Cooper, who already can't carry out his agenda because of the Republicans' veto-proof majorities. Democrats need to pick up either four House seats or six Senate seats for Cooper to get more leverage in 2019, and many more for a legislative takeover.

Two amendments expand crime victims' rights and create the right to hunt and fish — ideas that don't seem controversial. But some Democratic activists are calling for all six to be defeated to send a message, so hopes of boosting Republican turnout may be canceled out by Democratic anger.

"Six just strikes me as not disciplined. Maybe it will work out fine (for Republicans), but it really is rolling the dice," said McCorkle, who now teaches at Duke University.

One amendment would curb the governor's powers for filling vacancies for judges, who have sided with Cooper at times when he's sued to try to block legislation. Instead, legislators would give him at least two nominees from which he must pick.

Another would specify that the legislature controls the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates. Republicans call it a clarification after legal rulings, but Democrats say it would expand the legislature's power greatly.

"This is a fundamental rewrite that alters the balance of power in state government," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat opposing the amendment during floor debate last month. "I'm ashamed of us for pursuing this."

Another referendum seeks to bring back a photo identification mandate to vote after an earlier law was struck down by federal judges for racial bias, a ruling Republicans reject. Voters also could decide to decrease the maximum income tax rate allowed by law.

Cooper, who isn't up for re-election until 2020, is urging voters to defeat four of the six questions, saying "I just know bad government when I see it."

Although Republicans dismiss arguments that they are conspiring to target the governor through amendments, some questions seem to further their efforts to clip his wings.

Just after Cooper defeated then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by 10,000 votes in 2016, the legislature passed laws requiring Senate confirmation of his Cabinet, shifting powers from the governor-appointed State Board of Education and changing the law that had given the governor's party the majority of state election board positions.

When asked in May whether lawmakers had any plans to consider taking more of Cooper's appointive powers away, Senate leader Phil Berger joked, "Does he still have any?"

The political enmity began when Cooper was attorney general. He vocally opposed the Republicans' 2013 voter ID law and refused to use state lawyers to defend the 2016 "bathroom bill," which limited which public restrooms transgender people could use, calling the legislation a "national embarrassment." After damage to North Carolina's economic brand, the legislature and Cooper agreed to a partial repeal of the law last year.

Since Cooper took office, he's issued 23 vetoes — the most by a governor in state history. Republicans have overridden 18 of them, ignoring his calls to stop pending corporate and some personal income tax rate reductions and funnel that money to public education. Republicans also expanded taxpayer-funded scholarships for K-12 children to attend private schools, which Cooper opposes.