It’s an axiom as old as history. “Those who have no power want it, and those who have power want more of it.” The current power struggles in North Carolina politics are proof of the truth.
Our first state constitution, adopted in 1776, adopted the political philosophy of Montesquieu, an advocate for the separation of powers in government. Our state was rebelling from the tyrannical rule of the British monarch and was fearful of one person having too much power. They established three branches of government and, while they delegated more power to the legislative branch, divided power between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches.
Lawmakers believe they should have the final say, after all, they assert, they are elected by the people of the state. Hold on, says the governor. Legislators are elected by those in specific districts while the governor is elected by all the voters. Us too, sings the Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges. And let us not forget that the speaker of the House and the president pro tem of the Senate are selected by their respective bodies. More specifically they are chosen by the majority party caucus in each chamber. If majority rule is your measuring stick, the governor and appellate court judges should have greater power.
Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is under advisement regarding a lawsuit maintaining that the power to draw voting districts rests solely and finally with the legislature, without court oversight and rulings as to their constitutionality. They cite the independent state legislative theory, but the outcome will reverberate across the nation.
Having followed state politics for decades I support the belief that our General Assembly should have more authority. But I also staunchly believe the current bunch of legislators wants to exceed the boundaries of reasonable checks and balances.
To wit, since 2014 lawmakers have consistently challenged and eliminated the power of the governor to appoint the University Board of Governors, Community Colleges boards and other boards and commissions. Now they seek to totally eliminate the governor’s authority to name the members to the State Board of Education, going so far as to propose having these persons elected statewide instead of being appointed. We do have governance problems in education but this proposal won’t solve them.
This power grab isn’t new. Democrats became power hungry during the years they totally dominated the legislature and state government. In 1996, North Carolina became the last state to give the governor veto power. Since Roy Cooper became governor in 2017, there have been more vetoes than in all the years since 1996. Votes to sustain or override those vetoes are consistently in lockstep with party lines. In 2018, voters sent veto-proof majorities to the legislature and since then vetoes have been upheld. But in the 2022 elections Republicans gained a veto-proof majority in the Senate and are one vote shy of that in the House.
Not content with those numbers House Speaker Tim Moore reaffirms the wording that the override must be a three-fifths vote of those present and voting. To get the override he has changed traditional House rules that members be given at least 24 hours before such an override vote will be taken. Now, whenever the speaker (who is expert at counting votes) has the votes he can call for a vote whenever he wants. Democrats can’t get sick, go to the restroom or be absent from session for fear an override vote be suddenly held.
We also see a power grab in changing the way voters in Wake County elect their commissioners. Typically, a local bill (as this is known) is presented by request of a local county or city but no discussion was held with local elected officials. The proposed bill would force Wake to carve the county into districts and make the election non-partisan. Why? Because since 2014 Wake County Commissioners have been controlled by Democrats and Republicans want to eliminate or at least minimize the number of Democrats. A Democratic representative said, “If we vote for our county commissioners to be nonpartisan, what’s to say that this won’t happen in your county?” The GOP legislator sponsoring the bill says her bill’s intent is to ensure voters have confidence in the system. There’s no evidence they lack confidence. Another Democrat said, “If that’s the case, why wouldn’t the (races for) judges and the legislators coming from Wake County also be nonpartisan?” she said. Indeed.
Additionally, this legislature is discussing the elimination of the governor’s power to appoint vacancies in state courts or the Council of State, appointments usually made in consensus with the bar, the party of the incumbent and others. They already passed a law limiting the power of the governor to declare states of emergency during hurricanes, ice storms or health scares.
Living proof that those who have power always want more of it. Another tried and true axiom is applicable: Be careful of the fingers you step on as you go up the ladder. They may be connected to the rear end you have to kiss on your way down.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.