Editorial: Amendment bedevilment

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2018

Republican legislators have decided to give voters even less information about six proposed constitutional amendments on the November ballot than originally intended. This amendment business gets sketchier by the day.

As further proof of how poorly thought-out the amendments were, lawmakers convened Tuesday for a fix-it session. Two years ago, they passed a law to require the independent Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission write short captions to help voters get the gist of such amendments, but recently they grew leery of their own law. 

Why? Soon after the short session adjourned, someone pointed out that the three-member commission happens to include two Democrats — Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein — and one Republican, legislative services officer Paul Coble. That made Republican lawmakers uneasy.

Then Gerry Cohen, who helped earlier (read: Democrat-controlled) legislatures draft amendments, tweeted out  proposed captions that got too close to the truth.

For example, here’s what the legislature approved for one amendment:  “Constitutional amendment to establish a bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections to administer ethics and election laws, to clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches, and to prohibit legislators from serving on boards and commissions exercising executive or judicial authority.”

Cohen summed that up like this: “Transfer Powers of the Governor to the General Assembly.”

The legislature’s intentionally vague language masked the amendment’s impact. In truth, there is no way to “explain” some of the amendments without revealing that they shift major powers from the governor to the legislature. It’s a brazen power grab, made all the more obvious by this week’s panicky special session. Lawmakers voted along party lines to label each amendment with the words “Constitutional Amendment,” with no caption. Voters will just have to figure things out for themselves.

The commission has one other task related to the amendments — writing a few paragraphs explaining each one, for material that would be distributed to people who ask for more information. It’s not clear if the commission is still going to write those descriptions or if Republican lawmakers will find a way around that. But Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, nailed it when she criticized Tuesday’s machinations.

“I find it wildly ironic,” Butler said, “to suggest an independent commission who was specifically given the authority by this body to craft the captions two years ago is more politically motivated than this General Assembly.”

Republicans may not mind if lawmakers from their party pursue purely partisan goals, but everyone should be concerned about the sloppy handling of these amendments. This is hardly the way to change a critical document like the North Carolina State Constitution.