The Influencer Series

NC leaders oppose amendments to cut the governor’s power: ‘Nothing but a power play’

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The North Carolina Influencer series

The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun in Durham are launching a conversation between readers and important thought leaders throughout North Carolina.

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Five former North Carolina governors and six former chief justices apparently still have some clout.

They’ve all publicly opposed two of the six proposed constitutional amendments on November’s ballot. And a new survey shows many influential North Carolinians agree.

In fact, the survey for The Influencer Series shows opposition to all six of the amendments, much of it along party lines.

Sixty N.C. leaders in education, politics, business and advocacy were asked about the amendments as part of a series for The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. Thirty-six responded.

“Each one of these (amendments) seems to be solving a problem that we don’t have,” said Cyndee Patterson, president of Charlotte’s Lee Institute. “These are solutions in search of a true problem.”

The survey showed:

Twenty-five of the 36 respondents said they oppose an amendment that would protect hunting and fishing rights in the constitution. Most of those who oppose it are Democrats.

The same number oppose capping the income tax rate at 7 percent.

And the same number — and many of the same people — oppose requiring a voter ID.

Influencers were more evenly split on an amendment that would add rights for victims of felony crimes. Nineteen said they oppose it. Sixteen support it.

While support for those amendments tended to fall along party lines, there was bipartisan opposition to two amendments that critics say would change the balance of power in the state in favor of the General Assembly.

‘Power play’

One amendment would give the legislature authority to select members of a new state elections board, power now held by the governor. It would replace a nine-member board with one with eight members, four Republicans and four Democrats.

The other amendment would give lawmakers a bigger role in choosing who should fill judicial vacancies, again limiting the governor’s power. Thirty-three of the 36 Influencers said they oppose both.

“It is a basic tenet of our democracy that we balance powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches,” said Mike Rizer, an executive at Wells Fargo in Charlotte. “(T)hese proposed amendments move too much power to the legislative branch.”

In an unprecedented show of unity, the five living former governors of both parties came together in August to oppose the two amendments. So did the six living former chief justices of the state Supreme Court.

Mike Easley HO

Responding to the survey, former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley said the two amendments would give lawmakers “control of the judicial branch as well more of the executive branch.”

“It is a partisan power grab by the legislature and the ballot language does not explain this to voters,” he said. “That is why all five former governors oppose both of these amendments.”

Sallie Shuping Russell, former managing director of a private equity firm, agreed.

“The governor is elected by ALL the people of this state, whereas each legislator is elected by a smaller constituency,” she said. “For the General Assembly to take away powers from the governor . . . is nothing but a power play that does not serve the people of North Carolina.”

Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, said “the situation is already out of whack.”

“We don’t need to make it worse,” she said. “And that goes for whichever party is in charge.”

Pearl Burris-Floyd, a former GOP lawmaker from Gaston County now on the UNC Board of Governors, supports the amendments.

“The legislature would provide a more complete vetting of these candidates and appointees by including a cross-section of legislators from across North Carolina in a committee format,” she said.

‘What goes around’

Like his fellow former governors, Republican Pat McCrory opposes the two amendments dealing with appointments. But he favors the others and has criticized an anti-amendment group for running a TV commercial that implies that he opposes them all.

“Voter ID and victims right are priorities,” he said in the survey. “The current commercials sponsored by liberal groups opposing all six amendments are deceptive. . .”

But critics of voter ID say they fear it could reduce turnout.

“The voter ID amendment doesn’t specify what type of ID, that would be left up to local legislature and will most definitely discourage or prevent a segment of the population from voting,” said Vivian Howard, a prominent chef, TV host and advocate for Eastern North Carolina.

Supporters of the victims rights amendment, known as Marsy’s Law, are spending $5 million on ads to push it. Critics say it’s not needed.

“There is already a law regarding victims’ rights on the books,” Cramer said. “And while I wholeheartedly support victims’ rights, I’m not sure what unintended consequences would be of an amendment.”

Critics of the income tax amendment said they worried about tying the hands of future policy makers.

“No one likes the idea of raising taxes,” said Raleigh attorney Catherine Lawson. “But creating the impossibility of doing so no matter the possible future circumstances shows an adherence to a current policy preference at the expense of future judgment. . . . Wading into the weeds of policy decisions is better left to contemporaneous debate and decision-makers.”

Mark Vitner

But Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, sees benefit in the amendment.

“Capping the state income tax will provide some certainty to businesses and individuals thinking of relocating to North Carolina,” he said.

The hunting and fishing amendment is backed by the National Rifle Association. But it has skeptics closer to home.

“I think the hunting and fishing amendment is intended to mislead the voting public to believe these rights are threatened,” said Duke University law professor James Coleman, “and thereby generate greater voter turnout among conservative voters.”

Charlotte banking executive Jay Everette said Republican lawmakers pushing the amendments should be wary.

“What goes around comes around,” he said. “Political parties should be careful about making constitutional changes because they will not always be a majority in the legislature or hold the (governorship.)“

The Charlotte Observer’s Nancy Webb contributed to this story.

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill