NC’s political imbalance calls for change
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word balance.
We refer to a well-balanced life as one with equilibrium between work, family and recreation. A well-balanced diet includes a proper mix of the food groups. In government, we talk about the balance of power, indicating that the three branches — legislative, executive and judicial — have checks and balances so that no one branch becomes too dominant. Balance is a good thing.
North Carolina has been seeking balance since our earliest times.
Shortly after the Declaration of Independence, and in anticipation of statehood, North Carolina’s Fifth Provincial Congress tasked Richard Caswell to head a drafting committee to write our first constitution, which the group presented in December 1776. That document expressed the belief of most colonists that no one person — in their case, the British king — should have too much power over their affairs.
Accordingly, our first constitution established the three branches of government, but gave the true power to the Assembly, the only leaders then elected by the people. The governor was appointed by the Assembly for a one-year term.
By 1835, people determined the power equation was out of balance, especially those in the growing Piedmont and western sections of the state. Eastern legislators dominated the agenda, and the other regions felt their interests weren’t being heard. A state constitutional convention was called that year and, among amendments later approved by the voters, the governor became an elected official rather than an appointee.
Drafters hoped this would result in a better balance of power since all the voters in the state would elect our chief executive. Through the years, we have had some very influential governors, but the legislature unquestionably holds the power and, until the last 20 years or so, that body was largely controlled by members east of Interstate 95.
As former British Prime Minister William Pitt, for whom our Pitt County is named, wisely said, “Unlimited power corrupts the possessor.” North Carolina has been blessed with examples of wise leadership from our General Assembly, but there have been times when its members wielded too much power. Seeking to rebalance the power scales in 1996, North Carolina became the last state in the union to give the governor the power to veto legislation.
From its inception, there have been 99 gubernatorial vetoes, 64 of them issued by Gov. Roy Cooper since he took office in 2017. Since 2018, all his vetoes have been sustained because enough Democrats were elected to negate absolute power by Republicans.
GOP legislators maintain that Cooper has been a stumbling block to the passage of good legislation. Many others just as steadfastly believe most of those vetoes were justified and our balance of power equilibrium was restored.
I subscribe to the latter. Jim Martin, a Republican, became governor and even with what can only be described as a “hostile” legislature dominated by Democrats, had a very good record for passing legislation.
Martin was a conservative, but also a pragmatist and adept at getting votes from Democrats. During Martin’s tenure, moderates of both parties dominated on Jones Street and lawmakers could sometimes be persuaded to put aside party loyalty for the good of the state. Not so much today.
While Caswell and the drafters of our first constitution never envisioned political parties, or the resultant lockstep allegiance and party-line votes, we are now experiencing factions within each party, creating another form of imbalance.
In 2010, Republicans convinced the state’s voters that Democrats had ruled our legislature too long and they could be more responsive and accountable. They passed some good legislation the first couple of years, but then the extreme faction of their caucus started demanding and taking control.
Then-Speaker Thom Tillis once told me his biggest job was trying to keep his caucus’ factions together enough to pass bills. I believe one reason he decided to run for U.S. Senate is because managing those factions had become so difficult.
House Bill 2, the so-called bathroom bill passed in 2016, is a poster child of unbalanced power. There are current examples, such as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” legislation I wrote about last week and blatant power grabs to remove or minimize the governor’s ability to appoint public boards and commissions.
Need I remind you what has happened with the UNC Board of Governors, N.C. Community College System and State Board of Elections? Hints have emerged suggesting lawmakers plan to similarly interfere with the State Board of Education.
Balance is a good and desirable thing, and once again, North Carolina’s government is out of balance. What will it take to restore equilibrium?
We’ve tried solutions before, but the problem persists. There is only one solution to power imbalances in state or local governments: Voters.
The 7,312,000 voters of our state need to be reminded that they — not the governor or our legislators — are the ones with real power in North Carolina. In November, they have the chance to restore balance at the ballot box.
Tom Campbell is a North Carolina Hall of Fame broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program “N.C. Spin” that aired for 22 ½ years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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