News: CJ Exclusives

Elected Council of State, While Unwieldy, Is Unlikely To Change

Little momentum seen for allowing policymakers to be appointed

The results from November’s election for the General Assembly and the Council of State raise questions about the effectiveness of North Carolina’s unusual practice of electing 10 executive branch officials. Even though most states appoint several policymakers who are elected in the Tar Heel State, observers say it’s unlikely North Carolina voters would embrace any proposal reducing their clout at the polls.

Republicans gained a supermajority in the state House and Senate, and while the top two executive branch positions flipped to the GOP, every incumbent Council of State member — six Democrats and two Republicans — won new terms.

Republican Gov.-elect Pat McCrory handily defeated Democrat Walter Dalton by a double-digit margin. GOP Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Forest eked out a victory over Democrat Linda Coleman, winning by 6,858 votes out of 4.3 million cast.

Changing the method of selection for governor, lieutenant governor, and any of North Carolina’s other Council of State officials would require a constitutional amendment. One idea that’s been discussed repeatedly over the years is the prospect of placing the governor and lieutenant governor on a joint ticket, as 26 states now do.

North Carolina’s constitution limits the lieutenant governor’s duties primarily to casting a vote in the event a Senate bill is tied. Even so, that can be an important role. As lieutenant governor in 2005, Bev Perdue cast the tie-breaking vote enabling passage of the state’s lottery bill. Her vote ended a 23-year legislative battle to prevent North Carolina from entering the lottery business.

The lieutenant governor often has served as an advocate for the governor’s policies and succeeds the governor should something prevent a sitting governor from carrying out his or her constitutional duties. If the governor and lieutenant governor were from opposing political parties, that could hinder policymaking in the case of succession, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

One argument for having the governor and lieutenant governor elected separately by the people is “it keeps an internal check on having a too powerful executive branch and provides a democratic effect for voters,” Taylor said.

Election or appointment

In 2018, South Carolina will become the 27th state to have a joint or single-ticket election for governor and lieutenant governor. Palmetto State voters in 2012 approved an amendment setting up a joint ticket, said Brenda Erickson, a senior policy analyst for National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition to the governor and lieutenant governor, Article III, Section 8, of the North Carolina Constitution states that other Council of State officials elected by the public are “a secretary of state, an auditor, a treasurer, a superintendent of public instruction, an attorney general, a commissioner of agriculture, a commissioner of labor, and a commissioner of insurance.”

“There’s a lot of variance among the states in how state administrative officials apart from the governor and lieutenant governor are selected, with some positions mainly elected by the public and others mostly appointed by the governor, the legislature, or other administrative body,” Erickson said.

Data from The Book of the States 2012, published by the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky., show that most states let voters elect the secretary of state, the treasurer, the attorney general, and the auditor.

N.C. in a minority

Unlike North Carolina, very few states elect the top officials for agriculture and public education. In most states, they’re appointed by the governor, the legislature, a board or commission, an agency head, or a legislative committee.

Polling data consistently show that North Carolina voters are much less informed about down-ticket Council of State members and what they do. In the absence of a highly visible issue affecting public education, agriculture, insurance, or so forth, incumbents tend to win.

November’s results were no exception. Democrats Elaine Marshall, Wayne Goodwin, Janet Cowell, June Atkinson, and Beth Wood each won re-election with at least 52 percent of the vote for secretary of state, insurance commissioner, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, and auditor, respectively. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper was unopposed. Meantime, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry won new terms.

“If you present the voters with a choice of electing or having these department heads appointed, North Carolinians probably wouldn’t vote to give away their power to elect,” Taylor said.

Jeanette Doran, executive director of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, agreed. “Historically, voters in North Carolina don’t like to give up their right to vote,” she said.

Amending the constitution is not an easy undertaking, Doran said. The state does not allow amendments to be generated by citizen initiative, so a three-fifths vote of both chambers of the General Assembly is required to put an amendment on the ballot. Once an amendment reaches the ballot, there’s no guarantee it will pass. Doran cited the tax increment financing amendment as an example. The amendment came before voters three times spanning three decades before it passed narrowly in 2004.

Both Taylor and Doran said it’s worth thinking about appointing some Council of State officials, mentioning the superintendent of public instruction and the commissioner of agriculture.

“Governors often seek such a strong role in and have such a strong voice in public education that it may make sense to have the superintendent appointed by the governor. After all, many people hold the governor accountable for the state of education. Voters just don’t know much, if anything, about the superintendent,” Doran said.

No momentum for change

A spokeswoman for state Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Berger is not aware of any proposal for an amendment creating a joint ticket for governor and lieutenant governor or for changing the method of selecting the Council of State. Jordan Shaw, spokesman for state House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told Carolina Journal the issue has not come up.

Scott Laster, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, thinks the matter should be discussed. “In a time of crisis, voters should expect a consistent message from the governor and lieutenant governor,” Laster said. “A lieutenant governor from the opposite party than the governor would have a hard time selling the governor’s ideas.”

CJ asked Democratic leaders of the General Assembly and Democratic Party officials for comment. None responded.

Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.