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It’s official: General Assembly back into session Tuesday

July 24, 2018

The General Assembly will indeed go back into session Tuesday at noon to write short descriptions of the proposed constitutional amendments for the November ballot.

The official word went out to legislators shortly before 2 p.m. Monday. Although the session was ostensibly called to deal with amendment language, lawmakers won’t be constrained to just that topic. The formal call doesn’t give an end date and says legislators may consider “bills concerning any matters the General Assembly elects to consider.”

Democrats have suggested their Republican counterparts hope to tinker again with the state’s judicial elections, which they’ve overhauled several times over the last couple of years.

Word leaked over the weekend that Republican leadership was considering the move. House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, wrote a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore asking him to call the session, saying he was worried that a commission empowered by a 2016 law to write the ballot captions for the six proposed amendments would produce “politicized” versions.

“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, R-Cleveland, said Monday. “What we’re looking to do is coming back in and simply spelling out what that language would be.”

The Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission is made up of two Democrats and a Republican and had planned to meet next week. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who chairs the group, said in her own letter to Moore and other legislative leaders on Monday that she was “astonished” to find out Lewis had “cast aspersions” on the process.

“The commission’s work is neither to support nor oppose an amendment; its role is to simply explain the meaning to the voters,” Marshall said in her letter.

Marshall also said the commission would finish ahead of an Aug. 8 deadline the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has set for the captions, which are needed in time to print absentee ballots.

“In fact, Representative Lewis’s proposal for a special session will take much longer and cost the taxpayers a whole lot of money,” Marshall wrote.

Past estimates on session costs have put them at about $50,000 a day. If the General Assembly’s work on these captions is subject to veto, Gov. Roy Cooper would have at least 10 days to consider the new language, and legislators may have to come back again to overturn those vetoes before the captions are final.

Marshall also wrote that she knows of no one pushing the commission to write captions that would put the amendments in a negative light, something Lewis worried over in his letter but did not give examples of.

“I have had no outside groups or pressure tactics aimed at me or used against me. None,” she wrote. “If either of the other two commissioners have received such pressure, they have not indicated such to me.”

Moore likewise couldn’t provide details of the rumors of potential political action by the commission. And though Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement that “Democrats took what should be a simple process and attempted to politicize it in order to mislead the citizens of North Carolina,” a spokesman for the senator didn’t respond to a WRAL News email seeking evidence of that.

Moore said legislators would adopt special rules so they can unveil a bill and finish voting on it in a matter of hours, not days.

“My anticipation is we would do that [Tuesday] and have that to the governor [Tuesday] as well,” he said. “We’re running out of time on this.”

Providing less than 24 hours’ notice of the special session is nothing new for the GOP-led legislature, said Kimberly Reynolds, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party.

“Everything they do, in all honesty, is behind closed doors, and if they don’t have a problem with the public seeing it, why do they have a problem with the process that’s in place?” Reynolds said.

The commission has already been gathering public input, she said, adding that Republican legislative leaders are likely worried the resulting descriptions might be more accurate than they would like.

“They want to rig the system, they want to control the language and they want to control how it’s put and [make it] misleading on the ballot,” she said. “They have a lot of things they could come back into session for, and this is a ridiculous use of taxpayers’ money.”

Cooper’s office agreed, issuing a statement Monday that said, “Republicans are calling a special session to circumvent this board’s work and prevent voters from seeing accurate descriptions of these amendments.”

Many of the amendments made it to the ballot on the strength of GOP supermajorities in the House and the Senate, and with Democrats complaining not just about their substance but about the way they were written. In some cases, the questions voters will be asked are “designed to conceal the scope and consequences of these constitutional changes,” Cooper’s office said Monday.

Legislators also purposefully left implementation details out of the language for most of the amendments, choosing to come back into session to flesh things out once voters approve the proposals. They plan to do that after Thanksgiving, and among the open questions is what sort of photo identification would be accepted at the polls should voters agree to add a voter ID requirement to the state constitution.

“Legislative Republicans want to mislead voters in order to re-write the Constitution,” Cooper’s office said. “It is vital that North Carolinians understand the true impact of these amendments.”

The commission was slated not only to write a short caption to appear on the ballot, but a longer paragraph or two for each amendment that would be available at local boards of elections to anyone who requests them. The commission’s charge, laid out in state law, is to explain each amendment “in simple and commonly used language.”

The six proposed amendments are: