Defending Democracy, Legislature, News

With GOP member a no-show, constitutional amendments commission postpones work

Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall met Tuesday without the third member of the Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission, Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble.

Votes were postponed on ballot caption and description language for six amendments to the state constitution Tuesday when one of the three-member commission’s members didn’t show up to a scheduled meeting.

The Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission is tasked with creating short captions for the proposed amendments and longer descriptions of what each amendment would do that will also be available to voters. But all three members—N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble—must be in attendance for the commission to take a vote on the language.

Coble skipped the Tuesday morning meeting, stymying the ability of the commission to craft and vote on language for the ballots or descriptions.

The political tug-of-war between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled General Assembly in the last week has complicated the commission’s work.

First, the General Assembly returned in a special session to write its own captions for the ballot, stripping the commission of the ability to do so. Republican leaders said they were afraid the commission would politicize the language.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper vetoed the bill that took away the commission’s ability to write the captions. But legislative leaders, with a GOP supermajority, set up a vote Saturday to override Cooper’s latest vetoes.

Stein and Marshall, both Democrats, suggested Monday’s scheduled meeting of the commission go forward. If the veto is overridden, they said, the legislature’s caption language would move forward – but the commission is still tasked with preparing longer summaries of a paragraph or two that will be available through local boards of election.

In a Monday e-mail to Stein and Marshall, Coble argued the commission should postpone its meeting until August 6, after the veto override vote.

“I make this suggestion in order to avoid further politicizing the work of the commission and to avoid additional controversy,” Coble said. “Therefore, I will not attend any meetings of the Commission this week.”

Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble

Marshall replied by encouraging Coble to attend Tuesday’s scheduled meeting and offering to postpone discussion of the ballot captions until after Saturday’s vote. The commission could still proceed with the longer descriptions, she wrote.

When Coble failed to show for the meeting, Stein and Marshall said they were disappointed. They then turned the meeting into a “work session” on the amendment language. Going through each of the amendments, Stein and Marshall shared concern with how they were written, what they would mean for government in North Carolina and whether voters will actually understand the amendments on which they are being asked to vote.

Stein expressed concern about “the incredible disconnect between the words the voters will be voting on on the ballot and what the amendments actually do.”

“What I fear is that the voters are going to go in to get a beautiful birthday cake and see this wonderful picture with all this accurate, beautiful description of what it’s going to taste like…and then when they eat it, it’s cat food and they don’t like the taste it leaves in their mouths,” Stein said.

Of particular concern, both Stein and Marshall said, are the amendments dealing with filling judicial vacancies and an amendment that would give the legislature broad power to appoint members of boards and commissions. Both are politically controversial issues—the latter of which has been the subject of lawsuits between the last two governors and the General Assembly.

The amendment having to do with appointments on boards of commissions seems, at first glance, to deal only with the state board of elections, Marshall said. But when you examine what the amendment would actually do, it is much more expansive.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall

“My analysis of this is that it basically affects the separation of powers in the constitution of North Carolina,” Marshall said. “And it completely limits the governor in appointing positions that currently are appointable by him.”

Stein agreed.

“This amendment if enacted would represent the most radical restructuring of our government in 150 years, since the Civil War,” Stein said. “And I agree with you, the primary impact is to completely change the separation of powers. It doesn’t clarify the separation of powers, it changes it.”

“It would essentially give the legislature unfettered power to run the executive branch,” Stein said. “Which takes power away from the voters.”

All North Carolina voters elect the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Governor, Stein said. But a relatively small number of people can actually vote for those who hold the positions of Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the leaders of the legislature. To have the people in those House and Senate positions making decisions about things that are in the responsibility of the executive branch is contrary to the constitution as it has always been understood and harmful to the separation of powers, Stein said.

Stein and Marshall recessed the commission until Aug. 6, at a place and time to be determined.

After the meeting they said it was disappointing that Coble did not show up to Tuesday’s meeting. Both rejected the idea that the work session—in which they systematically  pointed out problems with the wording of the amendments and their potential negative impact on the state—is politicizing the process.

“I just want to make sure that when the voter goes to the polls, they know exactly what they’re voting on,” Stein said.

Attorney General Josh Stein

“Look, I do consumer protection. I did consumer protection for eight years at the Attorney General’s office for eight years before I got elected Attorney General,” Stein added. “I’m all for people making their own decision. But when they make a decision, there can be no deception. They have to know what they’re deciding. And if the words they’re voting for aren’t accurate, if they don’t describe the impact of what the amendment does, that’s deceptive.”

Stein admitted that, without the commission writing the captions, voters are not likely to seek out the longer descriptions of the amendment they will devise regardless of the veto override vote. The work is still important though, Stein said.

“In advertising, it’s not okay to say, ‘You win a million dollars,’ and then in the fine print to say, ‘No, you didn’t,'” Stein said. “That’s not appropriate.”

Marshall rejected the idea that going forward with Tuesday’s meeting was politicizing the work of the committee. Coble was given the option to attend the meeting and have the discussion without a vote on the captions, she said.

“He could have been here and participated in this conversation to do at least the summaries, because we know that’s still our ongoing obligation,” Marshall said. “He’s not fulfilling his responsibilities and he’s trying to prevent the rest of us from doing ours because it does require all three of us here to do business.”

“Him not showing today is an act of politicization of this,” Marshall said.

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