Opinion: Daily Journal

Retiring lawmaker’s speech puts political tug of war in perspective

Spend much time listening to the political rhetoric flowing from the state capital, and you’re likely to hear complaints about legislative “power grabs” and efforts to “rip authority away” from the governor and the state’s judges.

A recent speech from one retiring member of the N.C. House of Representatives should help place those criticisms in perspective.

Nash County Republican Jeff Collins is leaving the General Assembly voluntarily after four two-year terms. During a June 26 debate about a proposed constitutional amendment dealing with state elections and ethics oversight, Collins chided colleagues.

“I heard a myth propounded that I have heard propounded on this House floor a number of times since I’ve been here,” Collins said. “I’ve come within an eyelash of speaking about it before and never have, but decided that this is my last week, so this might be my last opportunity.”

The “myth”? That the N.C. Constitution sets up three “co-equal” branches of government. “Actually, nothing could be further from the truth,” Collins said. “Our state constitution, as it was originally set up, was set up by the people of North Carolina, who have been known since colonial times as a fiercely independent group of people.”

“They trusted their local legislator that they could eyeball more than they trusted one guy in Raleigh or another group of guys in robes that they never saw, either,” he added. “They made the constitution very clearly in such a way that the legislature was the dominant branch of government.”

Collins recalled his seventh-grade N.C. history class. “It was known that we had a weak-governor system,” he said. “In fact, ours was the weakest governor of the 50 states. He had no right to succeed himself. He could only be elected to one four-year term, had no veto power.”

“All that was changed when we had one governor who wanted to succeed himself — not one time, but three times — and wanted the veto power,” Collins said, referencing Democrat Jim Hunt. Hunt served four terms as governor between 1977 and 2001. The governor gained veto power during Hunt’s fourth term. “A friendly General Assembly relinquished a lot of their power that was in the state constitution by giving him both of those things.”

“Now, even our constitution as it reads today — I don’t know how you can read it and think we have three co-equal branches of government,” Collins added.

The N.C. Constitution is peppered with examples supporting Collins’ argument. Yes, Section 6 of the Declaration of Rights explains that state government’s legislative, executive, and judicial powers “shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.” But that section says nothing about equality among the distinct government branches representing those three sets of powers.

The constitution’s first section on governmental structure, Article II, sets out rules for the legislative branch, not the executive or judiciary. In Article III, covering the executive, the second “duty” listed for the governor calls on him to provide the General Assembly “information of the affairs of the State and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall deem expedient.”

Note that the governing document requires the governor to report to lawmakers. He can recommend ideas based on his policy preferences. Lawmakers can consider those ideas. There’s no requirement for the General Assembly to act, however expedient the governor might believe his ideas to be.

The fourth duty spelled out in Article III, Section 5 explains that the governor “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The General Assembly makes the laws. The governor carries them out.

The governor’s 10th duty starts with a warning that the “General Assembly shall prescribe the functions, powers, and duties of the administrative departments and agencies of the State and may alter them from time to time.” The governor can make administrative changes, too, but he must submit those changes to the General Assembly. Lawmakers can modify or reject the governor’s plans.

Article III, Section 7(2) explains that duties of members of the Council of State — the auditor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, and five other statewide executive offices — “shall be prescribed by law.” The General Assembly writes those laws as well.

Article IV describes the judicial branch as a “co-ordinate department” of state government. It expressly limits the General Assembly from taking steps to deprive that department of “any power or jurisdiction that rightfully pertains to it.”

Yet the rest of the article spells out multiple ways in which lawmakers set rules for the judicial branch. Six of the article’s 22 sections start with descriptions of steps the General Assembly can or will take to establish or adjust the judicial branch’s structure.

“That phrase, ‘as the General Assembly may prescribe,’ or something just like it, is used 30 times in Article IV,” Collins said. In contrast, Article II’s description of the legislative branch never mentions the judiciary.

It’s clear that the state’s governing document gives the General Assembly a greater role than either the governor or the judiciary in setting the rules that spell out government operations.

Criticize lawmakers for the way in which they exercise that role if you choose. But don’t act as if they have no power to make significant adjustments in state government’s basic structure.

They do. On his way out of the state Legislative Building’s doors, Collins reminded us of this critical fact.

“I think anything we do to bring ourselves closer to the spirit of our constitution — especially as it was originally written — is a good thing,” he said. “I’m still fiercely independent. I still trust somebody I can eyeball and talk to at a local gas station or restaurant … more than I do people who come up here sometimes and kind of forget where they came from.”

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.