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Democrats call North Carolina referenda questions misleading

RALEIGH (AP) The first meeting of a North Carolina panel tasked with summarizing the six proposed constitutional amendments on November ballots devolved July 31 into blistering Democratic critiques of the referenda questions when the Republican member didn’t attend.

The Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission couldn’t take official action because only two of the three members participated — state law requires all three to make decisions. The commission is supposed to create written explanations of each amendment in simple language for distribution to the public and voter guides mailed statewide.

GOP member Paul Coble, the Legislative Building’s top administrator, wrote Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Attorney General Josh Stein that he thought it best to stay away until next week, after the scope of the panel’s work will be settled.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly will convene this weekend on whether to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that would take away from the commission the additional job of putting titles on the ballot above each amendment question. Republicans said the bill was needed out of concerns that Democrats were being pressured to create negative titles.

Marshall, the panel chairwoman, denied last week that she was feeling outside pressure on the titles. She said that the commission’s work is to “enable the voters to knowingly decide and choose which way they want to vote on these constitutional amendments.”

Marshall and Stein met for a brief “work session” anyway July 31, saying many of the referendum questions the legislature put on the ballot were misleading and inaccurate when compared with the proposed alterations of the North Carolina Constitution.

“I am all for people making their own decision, but when they make a decision there can be no deception,” Stein said after the meeting. “They have to know what it is they’re deciding and if the words that they’re voting (on) are not accurate … that’s deceptive.”

Most of their criticism focused on two amendments that would shift authority away from Cooper toward the legislature.

One amendment makes plain that the General Assembly controls the appointments, duties and responsibilities of any board or commission it creates, and specifically gives the legislature the job of appointing members to the state elections and ethics board. The governor has made election board appointments for more than 100 years.

The question for voters, however, asks them if they want a bipartisan election board established and “to clarify the appointment authority of the legislative and the judicial branches.”

Stein said the amendment has nothing to do with the judicial branch and would give the legislature “unfettered power to run the executive branch” because of its appointment powers.

“This amendment, if enacted, would represent the most radical restructuring of our government in 150 years,” Stein said.

Another amendment creating a new method for filling vacancies for appellate court seats and nearly all trial court seats would mean the governor would no longer have the sole power picking them. Rather, “judicial merit” commissions would be created to receive nominations for a vacancy and consider qualifications. The legislature would recommend at least two names of candidates from the commission to the governor, who would have to choose one of them.

Stein said the actual constitutional language changes also could provide a way for the General Assembly to circumvent a governor’s veto powers by attaching other legislation to the legislature’s judicial vacancy choices.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said the criticisms by Stein and Marshall confirmed the Republicans’ decision to pass legislation about amendment titles was the correct one.

“Our concerns that political considerations would influence the commission’s work are fully valid and appropriate,” Berger wrote to Marshall after the meeting.

Other amendments on the November ballot would create a photo identification mandate to vote in person, lower the maximum income tax rate allowed from 10 percent to 7 percent, create a right to hunt and fish, and expand the rights of crime victims.

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