North Carolina amendments could cement GOP agenda in place

FILE - In this July 24, 2018, file photo, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, top left, speaks with Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett and aid Mark Coggins, right, during a special session at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C. Republicans’ imprint on the state could last decades beyond short-term statehouse outcomes if voters next month also approve as many as six constitutional referendums. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Democrats hope to win enough state legislative seats to strip Republicans of their veto-proof majorities and give Gov. Roy Cooper leverage to block the GOP’s right-leaning agenda.

But that agenda could be imprinted on the state for decades, if voters next week also approve as many as six Republican-sponsored constitutional referendums.

One would require photo identification to vote in person. Two photo ID laws have been blocked by veto or court rulings since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011.

Another amendment would lower the state constitution’s mandated income tax rate ceiling from 10 percent to 7 percent.

Two more would directly weaken the power of Cooper and his successors to fill judicial vacancies and to pick the powerful state elections board, swinging more control to the General Assembly. Republicans have been stopped by judges three times since early 2017 from altering the board’s composition.

Along with less contentious measures to expand crime victims’ rights and create a right to hunt and fish, referendum outcomes will show whether North Carolina voters support Republican policies enough to make them part of the constitution, and difficult to repeal.

“The timing of this is strategic. It’s also a chance to shore up their legacy on some pitches that they missed,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and not related to the governor. “Of these six amendments, at least four of them would be as a big an impact as anything (GOP lawmakers) has done if they were to pass.”

The Democratic governor and his allies are fighting all six amendments, rather than attempting to separate the provisions on fishing, hunting and crime victims that even Democratic legislators overwhelmingly agreed to submit to voters.

“It’s much more complicated to go into each individual amendment with people,” the governor told reporters in September while explaining his decision to oppose all six.

Opponents say they’re spending well over $2 million on the campaign known on social media as “Nix All Six” against the questions, with television ads, town hall meetings and get-out-the-vote efforts. They describe the amendments as unnecessary, confusing or power grabs by Republican lawmakers to extend years of oppressive policies.

“Some of them may sound good at first, but when you read the fine print, they’re actually a bad deal — a bad deal for democracy, a bad deal for families and a bad deal for communities across the state,” state American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Karen Anderson said.

Republicans point out the amendments would outlast current political players and dynamics and in some cases simply rebalance powers between government branches. Some could weaken Republicans in the future if Democrats control the General Assembly and there’s a GOP governor.

“You can’t allege that it’s a ‘today’ power grab,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican who shepherded the judicial vacancy question through the legislature. He criticized “Nix All Six” as a “slick slogan” that denigrates the public’s ability to consider carefully each question.

“Voters are smart and they can figure them out, and they can make informed decisions for themselves,” Newton said.

While the state GOP endorsed all six amendments, there appears to be no stand-alone organization promoting their passage.

“Marsy’s Law for NC,” linked to a national organization seeking approval of crime victims’ amendments in several states, planned to spend $5 million for North Carolina’s victims’ amendment and is running ads featuring “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer and NASCAR legend Richard Petty. A pro-voter ID group also has spent $650,000 on TV ads.

Republicans aren’t unified on the judicial vacancy and election board questions, which lawmakers had to rewrite in August because judges ruled the original referendums misleading. All of North Carolina’s living former governors — including two Republicans — still oppose both questions, saying they would erode executive branch powers.

Even the state chapter of conservative-leaning Americans for Prosperity is spending to oppose the judicial question, suggesting it opens the door to ending the direct election of judges by voters.

“Politicians would have more control over judicial appointments, and special interests could control our courts,” the AFP ad’s narrator says. Newton counters the amendment would actually give the public more say-so over appointments the governor currently can make without considering outside input.

GOP lawmakers haven’t yet filled in all the details on how approved amendments would be implemented. They plan to convene the legislature to pass laws related to amendments in late November — before the results of legislative races take effect in January — and can withstand any Cooper vetoes.

That uncertainty doesn’t help in heavily Democratic areas like Durham, where the trust is already low for people like voter Colleen Ellis, 35. She cast a ballot against all six on early voting’s first day.

“Changing the constitution is a sort of dangerous precedent, especially when the proposed amendments are not easily understood,” Ellis said in an interview. “I feel like voters haven’t been thoroughly informed.”

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