It wasn’t about partisan politics, former Gov. Jim Martin said. It’s something much worse.
Martin, and the four other living former North Carolina governors, held a news conference Monday, Aug. 13, in the State Capitol building, standing in bipartisan opposition to two constitutional amendments they say would limit executive power.
“The symbolism here in the House Chamber is palpable — that means you can feel it,” Republican Martin joked.
Martin said he arranged the meeting with his colleagues Jim Hunt, Mike Easley, Beverly Perdue, and Pat McCrory, because they agreed the proposed amendments — House Bill 913 and Senate Bill 814 — would damage separation of powers. They also would shift too much control away from the executive and judicial branches of government to the legislature. The governors planned to meet with political strategist Paul Shumaker to discuss ways to oppose the amendments, including the possibility of forming an official committee, raising money, and running ad campaigns.
They also urged media outlets to inform the public about the amendments and let voters make up their own minds on the measures — though Perdue added she wanted voters to reject them.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper filed a lawsuit challenging the two amendments. He argued the ballot questions are misleading, unfair, and incomplete. His lawyers say they’re unconstitutional because ballot questions must accurately describe the effect of the amendment.
H.B. 913 creates a new eight-member Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement appointed by the legislature and outside the authority of the executive branch; it also wrests authority for making other board and commission appointments from the governor to the legislature. S.B. 814 deals with filling judicial vacancies. It creates merit commissions to recommend judicial candidates to the General Assembly, which would make nominations to the governor.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, issued a joint statement responding to the governors.
“While it’s not surprising former governors oppose checks and balances on the unilateral authority of their office, we are confident the people will support a more accountable approach to filling judicial vacancies and approve a bipartisan balance on critical boards like the state’s ethics and elections commission over a system of purely political control.”
Hunt served four terms as governor — 1977-85 and 1993-2001. He said the amendments would be bad for North Carolinians, who choose the governor in a statewide election with the expectation he or she will represent their interests through board appointments.
“It’s easy to talk about all of these terms and all these ideas, and they’re fine.” Hunt said. “But, it’s really about whether or not a few politicians in the legislature will increase their power at the expense of the people of North Carolina.”
Easley reiterated the significance of the meeting.
“It’s rare that we get together like this. Never have five of us gotten together and stuck it to you on the same issue. So you can believe we believe in what we’re saying to you today.”
Easley said the amendments would be bad for regulatory policy.
“I think it’s important to understand that the power of the executive is in those boards and those commissions,” Easley said. “You can’t do your job as governor if you don’t have access to those commissions and boards, and they respond to who appoint them.”
Easley said that, from his perspective as governor, attorney general, and lawyer, the amendments were poorly drafted and warned it would take years for the courts to interpret them.
Perdue said she was surprised by news of the legislature’s ongoing session and its plans to implement the amendments after the elections.
‘My granddaughter has a saying that I love,” Perdue shared. ‘There are potatoes in all of our lives. There are big potatoes, and there are medium potatoes, and there are small potatoes.”
“As I was riding here today I thought, you all, ‘This is big potatoes.’ This is big stuff for the people of North Carolina. It can’t be undone once it’s done. “
Perdue, a former history and civics teacher, said even fourth-graders understand the concept of checks and balances among the three branches of government.
Republicans McCrory and Martin agreed this constitutional issue went beyond partisan politics.
Failing to engage the GOP-led General Assembly would be hypocritical, McCrory said, recalling his successful battle in the separation-of-powers lawsuit McCrory v. Berger. In the lawsuit, the state Supreme Court ruled the governor had to have effective control of a majority of the appointees of a board or commission which primarily performs executive branch functions.
McCrory challenged legislators to join the governors in opposing the amendment.
“If any of you want to take on the responsibilities of being governor, then have the courage to run for governor and win. Earn it.”
“Don’t hijack our constitution, especially through two deceitful and misleading amendments that will be on the ballot and attempt to fool the people of our great state,” McCrory said.