At a standing-room only gathering to discuss the six proposed amendments to the North Carolina constitution Wednesday, Gerry Cohen had a simple summation of the Republican-controlled legislature’s message to Democrats.
“You can win the governorship and the state Supreme Court,” Cohen said the message went. “But we’ll make it worthless for you.”
Cohen served as Director of Legislative Drafting at the General Assembly for 30 years until 2012, then served two more years as special counsel. Of the last 16 amendments to the state constitution, Cohen personally drafted nine and reviewed the other seven before lawmakers voted on them.
As part of a panel of speakers at Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation luncheon on the six amendments, Cohen said the intent of the GOP majority is clear heading into November’s election:
* Transfer powers from the governor’s office—now occupied by Democrat Roy Cooper—to the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
* Fire up the GOP base with vague amendments that guarantee “the right to hunt and fish,” an expansion of the rights of crime victims and a voter ID requirement—all without making clear how things will be accomplished or their broader implications.
* Make it easier for the legislature to control judicial appointments, and assure more jurists friendly to the laws they pass.
Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) and progressive activist Karen Ziegler, who joined Cohen on the panel, agreed that the intent of the amendments is transparent. That, they said, is just about the only thing about the amendments and their journey to the ballot that could be described that way.
“The biggest problem is that voters won’t really know what the amendments mean, based upon the language that is going to be put on the ballot,” said McKissick.
That’s because the legislature—inspired, at least partially, by some critical tweets from Cohen—recently stripped a three-member, bipartisan commission of its responsibility to write ballot captions for the amendments. The commission will still write descriptions for state voter guides that will be mailed to voters and available through local elections offices, but the ballot will not contain the descriptions or even numbers for the amendments.
Cohen joked that, ironically, doing so has simplified the campaign against the amendments. They can simply tell voters to reject all the amendments without having to distinguish them by number.
Cohen and McKissick both pointed out the problems with the text of the amendments themselves. In addition to having no implementing legislation that would tell people how things will be carried out, some of them are simply incorrect.
The amendment that would cap the maximum tax rate says that it will lower the tax rate, McKissick
noted, leading voters to believe their taxes will go down if they pass the amendment. In fact, the proposed cap is higher than the tax rate now in place in the state. The amendment wouldn’t lower the rate. It would simply lower the maximum allowable tax rate.
In private, McKissick said, even some of his GOP colleagues in the legislature are expressing misgivings about some of the amendments, particularly one that further limits the power of the governor. Those two amendments have also come under fire from former Republican governors Jim Martin and Pat McCrory, who urged voters to defeat the amendment.
Ziegler, the organizer of the popular “Tuesdays with Tillis” protests, said that’s precisely why voters should reject them all. With the legislature crafting amendments that sound good but keep voters in the dark about their actual impact, Ziegler said, there’s a lot of educating to do.
From a victim’s rights amendment she called “subtle race-baiting” to an amendment that would “clarify” appointment powers by allowing the legislature rather than the governor to appoint members of more than 400 boards, Ziegler said the amendments must be taken seriously.
“Every single one of these are so insidious that they are a great opportunity to educate the public about this Jim Crow caucus that is the super-majority in the North Carolina state legislature,” Ziegler said.
A video of Wednesday’s full Crucial Conversation can be seen here, on the N.C. Policy Watch Facebook page.