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April 15, 2021

Colin Campbell: Meet the amendments lawmakers don’t want you to vote on

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

RALEIGH — You can learn a lot about the state legislature by looking at the bills that didn’t pass.

Lawmakers file more than a thousand bills during every two-year session. And behind each failed proposal is a decision by leadership — either that the measure lacks enough support in the majority party, or that the issue isn’t worth considering.

That’s true of this year’s efforts to change the state constitution. Lawmakers decided to pursue six different amendments, ranging from hunting rights to the governor’s appointment powers. Voter haven’t had that many constitutional questions to decide at once since the 1980s.

While some of the amendments are more controversial than others, the debate is becoming a partisan battle. Democrats are urging voters to “nix all six,” while the Republican Party has endorsed all six.

The six chosen amendments, however, were among over 30 amendments proposed during the 2017-2018 legislative session. Republicans picked the proposals most likely to energize the GOP base to turn out in a crucial, off-year election, as well as a few that boost the legislature’s power over the governor.

But what about the amendments lawmakers nixed before voters got a chance to weigh in? Some of them would have proved equally controversial: An anti-union “right to work” provision, a proposal to shorten judges’ terms, and even an effort to delete the constitution’s ban on secession.

Others likely would have enjoyed widespread support, but legislative leaders refused to give voters a chance to decide. Here’s what could have been on the ballot this November if lawmakers had been more interested in bipartisanship:

Delete the racist literacy test: Remember when African-Americans in North Carolina were denied their right to vote because the state administered a “literacy test?”

The test was banned decades ago through federal civil rights actions, but the provision is still part of our state constitution: “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution.”

Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, sought to give voters a chance to repeal what he rightly called a “stain on North Carolina.” The House voted unanimously to put the amendment on the ballot, but the Senate never took up the bill. It’s not clear why.

Independent redistricting: Legislators from both parties filed constitutional amendments that would create a less partisan process for drawing legislative and congressional districts. Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, proposed a system where a software program creates maps based on “politically neutral criteria.”

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, proposed an independent redistricting commission with members appointed by legislative leaders, the governor and judicial officials. They’d submit three sets of maps for the legislature to consider.

None of the proposals got even a committee hearing. Legislative leaders are counting on maintaining control until the next maps are drawn in 2021, so they can continue to give the Republican Party a disproportionate number of seats. Nonpartisan redistricting tends to poll well, so there’s no way they’d let voters have a say in how districts are drawn.

Term and time limits: Three amendments filed by Republicans would impose term limits. One would prevent the governor from serving a third, nonconsecutive term like former Gov. Jim Hunt. Another would force legislative leaders to step down after eight years in the top jobs. And a third would limit legislators to 16 years in office.

Those proposals didn’t get a hearing, and neither did an amendment proposed by Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, to limit the amount of time the legislature stays in session. Politicians in power want to stay there, so it’s no surprise voters won’t get a say on these ideas.

As you vote on constitutional amendments this fall, take a moment to remember the popular proposed amendments you won’t get to vote on.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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