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State lawmakers move to seize power over constitutional amendment captions

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett

North Carolina lawmakers wasted little time in filing, and approving, legislation Tuesday that would seize control over the captions that describe six controversial, constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, co-sponsored House Bill 3 Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers rang in a special session that critics blasted as an attempt to defuse a bipartisan commission’s work on the captions in the coming days.

Lawmakers wrote the language for those amendments on the ballot, language that’s already been criticized for offering a particularly “rosy” depiction of their impacts, despite concerns about a much-criticized voter ID amendment and further power shifts from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to state legislators.

But a three-member commission, which includes two Democrats and one Republican, would be charged with authoring short descriptions that would be on the ballot and available to voters.

Lewis’ bill would instead change the captions to read “constitutional amendment,” while leaving the voting guide descriptions to the commission.

Minority party leaders like House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson slammed the hastily convened special session Tuesday, calling it “injurious” to the state.

“What changed between 2016?” Jackson told members of a state House rules committee Tuesday. “Why are we doing it at such a late date?”

The constitutional commission includes Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, as well as Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, a Republican.

That commission has laid out plans for public comment and a website in anticipation of meeting state election officials’ early August deadline for the caption language, but Lewis wrote in a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore over the weekend that he worried the commission would craft politicized captions intended to sway voters.

Lewis said the commission would still be charged with creating descriptions that would be available to voters, although that language would not be included on the ballot.

The bill passed the House and the Senate Tuesday afternoon on partisan lines, just hours after they were filed, and were sent to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.

Cooper’s expected to veto the bill, but GOP lawmakers have left themselves just enough time to override that veto in time to meet state election officials’ early August deadline.

Sen. Harry Brown, an eastern North Carolina Republican, argued Tuesday, without providing any evidence, that members of the commission would politicize the caption language.

“I would have to argue we think that’s what’s happening in the state,” Brown said.

But on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Democrats noted the descriptions already drawn up by GOP lawmakers to describe the amendments this fall, particularly one that shifts judicial appointment powers from Cooper to the legislature, gloss over details that may lead voters to disapprove.

“If the makeup of this commission had two Republicans and one Democrat, we wouldn’t be here,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat. “If perhaps (GOP candidate) Buck Newton had become attorney general… we wouldn’t be here. This is all political.”

[This is a developing story. Check back updates.]

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State lawmakers move to seize power over constitutional amendment captions