RALEIGH — The North Carolina legislature has called itself into an unscheduled session starting Tuesday because some Republican leaders fear a Democratic-controlled panel could add ballot wording for proposed constitutional amendments that dim their chance of passage in November.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest — the Senate’s presiding officer — issued a proclamation Monday calling lawmakers back to work starting at midday Tuesday. Republican lawmakers used a procedural tool that requires signatures of three-fifths of House and Senate members to convene their own special session, rather than needing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to call it.
At issue are titles to be placed atop each of the six amendments the legislature agreed last month to put before voters this fall. Some of the amendments would shift powers from Cooper to the General Assembly and revive a voter ID law.
“We want to ensure there is clarity in the wording of the amendments,” said Sen. Danny Britt Jr., a Republican from Lumberton.
But, that’s not the only issue that will be before the lawmakers.
“We are going back to look at the wording but we are also going to try and address the continued failures of getting hurricane money to the places it is needed the most,” Britt said.
It was announced recently that Robeson County has been awarded more than $2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money to demolish, reconstruct and elevate 15 residences destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. The money is part of $16.8 million awarded by FEMA to North Carolina to mitigate future flood loss. This grant announcement is in addition to the $11 million in Hurricane Matthew relief money announced in June for Robeson County.
As for the amendments, state law directs a three-member panel to come up with those “captions.” The panel is comprised of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Attorney General Josh Stein — both Democrats — and the Legislative Building’s administrator, Republican Paul Coble.
The panel planned to do its work next week, days before the state elections board needed the titles so they could be placed on ballots going to printers. The commission had asked for public comments on what the captions and related amendment summaries should say.
Moore said fellow Republicans feared the commission might succumb to political pressure and approve titles that put some the proposed amendments in disparaging lights.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about what I would believe and what a lot of my colleagues believe is to misrepresent and politicize something that should be purely administrative,” Moore told reporters. “So what we’re looking to do is coming back in and simply spelling out what the language would be.”
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger also said he supported the session and “efforts to ensure that voters get accurate descriptions of these extremely popular amendments.”
GOP leaders, however, have provided no examples of such pressure. Democrats and their allies have blasted the amendments and the possible session since the idea surfaced over the weekend. Republicans are changing the rules to “rig the system” and suit their political needs, state Democratic Party Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds said.
“Instead of allowing an open and transparent process, Republicans are calling a special session to circumvent this board’s work and prevent voters from seeing accurate descriptions of these amendments,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a release
Two of the amendments, if approved, would erode Cooper’s powers. One would curb his ability to fill judicial vacancies with his favored candidates and another would specify that the legislature controls the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates. Others would revive a photo identification mandate to vote and lower the maximum income tax rate lawmakers could approve.
Another two amendments would expand crime victims’ rights and enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state constitution.
Marshall, who has led the Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission for over 20 years, said in an interview that Republican claims of political pressure placed upon the panel are unfounded, and the GOP’s session is “insulting” to the panel’s work.
Republicans are counting on some of the amendments to bring out conservative voters at a time when they are trying to avoid losing their veto-proof House and Senate majorities.
Moore said he expects lawmakers will approve in one day captions essentially matching the titles of the bills that the legislature approved.
For example, the title of the judicial amendment measure is “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment.” But Gerry Cohen, a lawyer who worked for decades within the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, recommended to the commission last week that it should title the amendment, “Limits governor’s power to fill short-term vacancies as justice and judge.”
Any legislation would be sent to Cooper. If he vetoes it, the General Assembly would have an opportunity to override.
When lawmakers adjourned their annual work session June 29, Republicans said they had no plans to reconvene until late November.