Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely: How to Understand the Legislature’s Latest Half-Baked Special Session | Soapboxer | Indy Week

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Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely: How to Understand the Legislature’s Latest Half-Baked Special Session

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If I were cynical enough to look past the blasé evisceration of democratic norms in pursuit of raw political power that took place on Jones Street last week—and is coming up again this weekend, when the Republican-led General Assembly returns to indulge in its favorite hobby, overriding Governor Cooper's vetoes—I'd probably appreciate, maybe even admire, the unabashed shamelessness of what transpired.

It was bad enough that Republican leaders called a special session with almost no public notice based on—wait for it—a tweet from a private citizen. It was worse that they did so to prevent North Carolinians from having even the foggiest idea about the six constitutional amendments they'll be voting on this November. And worse still were the shenanigans they pulled to help the GOP candidate for state Supreme Court, who was the victim of unintended consequences of previous Republican efforts to entrench Republican rule.

To recap: In the waning days of this year's short session, Republicans voted to put six constitutional amendments on the ballot, an effort to gin up their base amid a difficult electoral season. Of course, the legislature didn't bother spelling out the details of what those amendments would do, instead entrusting the nitty-gritty of so-called implementing legislation to a special lame-duck legislative session held after the election. In other words, you'll get to find out what you voted on after you voted on it.

Four of these amendments purport to fix problems that don't actually exist: A voter ID amendment (again, you won't get to know what kinds of identification are acceptable, or what exceptions will be allowed, until after the vote) targets the fever dream of widespread voter fraud. An amendment to cap the income tax rate at 7 percent imagines that a future legislature will jack up taxes on rich people. And until the short session, I hadn't heard that crime victims or hunters or fishermen felt somehow shortchanged by existing state statutes.

The other two amendments are simply power grabs designed to neuter the governor, who in the legislature's view should not be either a Democrat or more than a ceremonial figure. One redirects the governor's power to appoint judicial vacancies to the legislature, while the other strips the governor of his role in making appointments to the elections board and other state boards.

Under a state law passed just two years ago, those amendments go to the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission—comprising the secretary of state, attorney general, and legislative services officer—which is tasked with writing a "short caption" of each amendment for the ballot. The problem for the General Assembly is that two of the commission's members—Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein—are Democrats, and hence not to be trusted.

Compounding their anxiety, on July 20, Gerry Cohen, the widely respected former director of the legislature's Bill Drafting Division who also happens to be a Democrat, tweeted a link to a memo he'd written suggesting captions for the six amendments. His captions were straightforward: "Voter shall provide photographic identification before voting in person." "Protect right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife." "Transfer powers of the Governor to the General Assembly."

But Republicans freaked out nonetheless. The next day, state Representative David Lewis, who chairs the powerful Rules Committee, demanded that the legislature convene in a special session to render the commission obsolete, claiming it was under pressure to write "politicized captions." So last week, Republicans dutifully voted to make all of the captions on the ballot simply say, "Constitutional Amendment."

And then, because they can't help themselves, lawmakers tried to clean up another of their self-inflicted messes. Last year, after a Democrat named Mike Morgan sneaked his way onto the state Supreme Court—likely owing to his placement atop the 2016 ballot—the legislature made Supreme Court races partisan. (Legislators later tweaked the law to ensure that this year's Democratic candidate will appear at the bottom of the ballot.) Then earlier this year, Republicans eliminated judicial primaries. This became a problem when a former Democrat named Chris Anglin signed up to run as a Republican in November, threatening the election of Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson and boosting Democratic challenger Anita Earls.

As they've so often done when their chicanery has bitten them in the butt, Republicans once again changed the rules of the game. A new law, passed along party lines, removes party labels from those who changed party affiliation less than ninety days before filing for office, and it would be applied retroactively. If his inevitable lawsuit fails, Anglin will appear on the ballot without party affiliation.

Cooper vetoed both bills. The General Assembly will be back Saturday to override those vetoes, as it's done nearly a dozen times over the last eighteen months.

This is what unchecked, absolute power looks like, zealously and audaciously protecting its own. And the longer Republicans retain their supermajorities, the more this uncompromising style of politics—contemptuous of norms, dismissive of rules, consumed by the preservation of power, incapable of shame—will become entrenched in our state's government.

No matter your partisan leanings, that's not something to look forward to.

jbillman@indyweek.com

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