It’s no surprise that every living N.C. governor agrees that the current governor and his successors should maintain their level of power within state government. That message emerged clearly from the five former governors’ recent high-profile gathering at the State Capitol.
What’s more surprising about the first-of-its-kind meeting: Not one of the governors articulated a strong argument supporting their common cause.
With all of their political savvy, collected wisdom, and decades of experience, they offered voters little reason to choose gubernatorial power over legislative power in a political tug of war.
Make no mistake about it. The two proposed constitutional amendments that prompted the historic gubernatorial conclave address the balance of power in N.C. government. Lawmakers want to ask voters to reset that balance. Governors want voters to say no, if the amendments end up on the ballot at all.
It’s important to distinguish the merits of gubernatorial versus legislative power from the debate over potentially misleading ballot language. A three-judge panel agreed with the governors and other critics that the original versions of the proposed amendments did not present voters an accurate picture of what the amendments would do.
But even if each amendment is presented as clearly as possible, as lawmakers argue they have done with a recent rewrite, the governors would continue to raise objections.
One amendment would change the way the state fills vacant jobs among N.C. judges. At this point, the governor makes those choices. State law requires him to give “due consideration” to recommendations from lawyers in an affected judicial district. But the choice remains his.
The amendment would boost the public’s role in the process. Any person could recommend a new judge. Then a new merit commission would sift through those recommendations and determine which ones meet the job’s qualifications. Those names would head to the General Assembly.
Lawmakers would assume the critical role in the judicial appointment process. They would narrow the field of qualified candidates to two or more options to submit to the governor. The governor would appoint one of those nominees or punt the decision to the legislature.
This change clearly shifts the bulk of the judicial appointment power from the governor to the General Assembly. But voters still retain the ultimate power. They would vote for or against the appointee in a future election. Voters also would preserve their right to punish an elected official for making poor judicial appointments. Since lawmakers are elected every two years, as compared to every four years for the governor, one could argue that the proposed change in filling vacancies would enhance the people’s “power to punish.”
The second amendment would restructure the state board overseeing N.C. elections and ethics enforcement. Under current law, the governor appoints all nine board members. With the amendment, the board would shrink from nine to eight members. Republican and Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate would appoint all eight. Neither major party would hold a numerical advantage.
Once again, this represents a clear shift of power from the executive branch to the legislative branch. But the amendment says nothing about the role or responsibilities of the elections and ethics board. Its duties would remain intact. (It’s worth noting that the latest version of this amendment drops a provision that governors found particularly objectionable. The amendment no longer asks voters to give lawmakers power over all appointments to state boards and commissions created by law.)
One cannot blame Gov. Roy Cooper or any of his predecessors for opposing both amendments. Governors like appointing judges. They also would prefer to have some say in membership of the state elections board.
But the governors’ political preferences do not address key questions in this debate.
Is there compelling evidence that gubernatorial appointment leads to higher-quality judges than legislative appointment? Is a state board stacked with members acceptable to the governor better equipped to handle complicated ethics and elections issues than a board stacked with members selected by legislative leaders from both major parties?
One might have hoped that the Aug. 13 gubernatorial gathering would have addressed those questions.
Instead former governors of both parties spent much of their time taking rhetorical shots at lawmakers. “My advice to the hard-working legislators: If any of you want to take on the responsibilities of the governor, then have the courage to run for governor and win,” said Republican Pat McCrory, Cooper’s immediate predecessor. “Earn it. Don’t hijack our constitution.”
How could lawmakers hijack the constitution? Only voters can change it.
Fellow Republican Jim Martin explained why he and McCrory spoke up against legislative leaders from their own party. ““This is not about partisan politics,” Martin said. “It’s about power politics, and it must be stopped.”
Why must it be stopped?
Former Democratic governors emphasized the potential negative impact on people. “Those who suffer are not the officeholders,” said Mike Easley. “Those who suffer are the people.”
How would the people suffer?
Bev Perdue also focused on people. “Everything that goes on here should be open, transparent, and it should be about the people of North Carolina,” she said. “Does it make our lives — now that I’m a regular citizen — any better? Does it help my family, my children, my community?”
Do gubernatorial appointments help your family? Children? Community? Do they make your life better?
Democrat Jim Hunt is no stranger to shifts in state government power. Hunt pushed during his tenure for constitutional changes giving the governor veto power and the right to serve a second consecutive term. Hunt offered his own paean to the people.
“This effort that we oppose on a strong, bipartisan basis is against a few politicians in the legislature increasing their power at the expense of the people of North Carolina,” Hunt said. “It is a bad thing for the people of North Carolina.”
Bad in what way?
Left unexplained by any of the governors: How exactly would these changes hurt “the people”? The people vote for governor. The people vote for legislators. Whether the governor or a legislative body controls appointments to other government posts, the people’s role is limited. Their only impact on those appointees results from their votes for the officeholder making the appointment.
In fact, the people exercise their greatest political power when they decide how much of that power to delegate among competing branches of government. That is exactly what the disputed constitutional amendments ask the people to do.
Perhaps the governors can offer compelling arguments for preserving the current balance of power. So far, they’ve declined the opportunity.
Instead, they’ve complained about legislative “power grabs” or echoed Hunt’s vague pronouncement: “When people vote for the governor, all of them, they decide on their future.”
Deciding on the future? Really? The vote for governor represents more than just a decision about who will lead the executive branch of state government for the next four years?
Even those voters who do assign the governor such far-reaching influence over future events probably spend little time thinking about his role in filling judicial jobs or stacking the elections board.
Unless Cooper and the former governors can come up with better justifications for the current balance of government power, voters might choose to shift that balance.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.