The lawless leaders of the General Assembly prepare to do once again the thing they do best
It’s always tempting to open each and every commentary about the North Carolina General Assembly in 2018 with that most ubiquitous of modern pop culture phrases: “You can’t make this s[tuff] up.” After all, when it comes to brazen, autocratic assaults on traditional American notions of democratic government, no one does it better than Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and his always ready and willing sidekick, House Speaker Tim Moore.
Even Vladimir Putin’s bumbling buddy in the White House – hemmed in as he is by a handful of federal and state judges, a semi-watchful news media, the prospect of criminal prosecution for any number of offenses, and an occasionally disagreeable Congress (except when it comes to packing the federal courts) – has yet to pull off the kind of raw, “because-I-said-so” power moves that are as common in Raleigh these days as a #MeToo complaint addressed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Of course, with all that as background, it’s hardly surprising that Berger and Moore have called the legislature back into special session today with virtually zero notice. As anyone who read Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian’s story on the subject three weeks ago probably could have predicted, there was no way that the current group of state legislative leaders was going to stand by and let anything akin to open and transparent process prevail when it comes to informing the public what’s in the bevy of constitutional amendments that will appear on this November’s ballot.
Having rammed all six amendments through the General Assembly during the final week of the 2018 session and affixed intentionally deceptive titles to each so as to minimize public awareness, the last thing Berger and Moore were going to allow was a pair of constitutional officers who belong to the Democratic party (Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein), who along with Republican Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble comprise the state’s Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, to have any say in what appears on the ballot.
And so, today at noon, some subset of the General Assembly – many members are out of town on vacations and other long-planned trips – will convene to go about doing the dirty deed of changing the law to take away Marshall and Stein’s power. Naturally, there are no specifics at this point as to what form this latest power grab will take – prior notice to the public and the news media not being something the General Assembly under Berger and Moore does. Indeed, if they could have figured out a way to do the entire session by conference call, you can bet they would have tried.
Neither is there any real indication as to what else might be on the agenda. Rumors were flying around Raleigh yesterday that additional legislative action could be in the offing to alter the way candidates who have already filed will be identified on the ballot in November. Republicans are apparently miffed that their own ill-conceived scheme to nix party primaries for judicial races has resulted in situations in which more than one Republican may be on the ballot against a single Democrat.
Of course, as predictable as all of this was, it doesn’t make it even the least little bit right. As Secretary of State Marshall explained in a detailed and highly compelling letter to Berger and Moore yesterday, the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission has been moving quickly to do its duty with respect to crafting ballot language regarding the amendments in a transparent and highly professional manner. It is currently scheduled to hold a public event a week from today as part of that process.
But even if the Commission were not moving with the full measure of smooth and unbiased professionalism Marshall detailed in her letter, the special session would still be an outrage. Simply put: It is an egregious abuse of power and just plain wrong to call the General Assembly into a special session of this kind with so little public notice or transparency.
This is precisely the same kind of heavy handed action that led to the infamous HB 2 and that has, tragically, become one of the hallmarks of GOP leadership in recent years. It’s because of actions like this that North Carolina has become such a national political laughingstock and a place in which reputable national observers have described democracy as being at risk.
The bottom line: If there’s any justice left in the world, this latest outrage will backfire on its authors by opening the public‘s eyes to the truth about the six amendments – even if the language that ultimately appears on the ballot and the process behind it is the kind “you just can’t make up.”