5 ex-North Carolina governors gather to oppose 2 amendments

North Carolina's five living former governors on Monday delivered an extraordinary rebuke of the Republican-dominated legislature for two constitutional amendments it put on fall ballots, saying they would shred gubernatorial power and government checks and balances if approved.

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The ex-governors - three Democrats and two Republicans who served a combined 40 years - gathered for a rare appearance in the old Capitol, urging voters to defeat the referendums, among the six that lawmakers are submitting to voters.

Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue and Republicans Jim Martin and Pat McCrory served from 1977 through 2016. Some would appear to be unlikely allies. Perdue narrowly defeated McCrory in the 2008 gubernatorial election.



"This is not about partisan politics. It's about power politics. And it must be stopped," Martin said.

Current Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper didn't attend but has sued to prevent votes on the amendments this November. He contends the questions are so false and misleading as to be unconstitutional themselves.

Later this week, a three-judge panel will hear legal requests from Cooper and from interest groups that sued to get four questions off the ballots.



The rare public appearance by the former governors emphasized the stakes in the litigation, and the potential rebalance of powers between the three branches of government if the amendments are approved. Governors would no longer have sole power to filling judicial vacancies and would be cut out of making appointments to the state elections board and possibly other key state boards and commissions.

Spokespeople for top GOP legislative leaders didn't immediately respond to the governors' comments, but other Republican lawmakers hit back hard earlier Monday, listing lapses linked to the former Democratic governors. In 2010, Easley entered a felony plea for an improperly filed campaign finance report.



One amendment would shift control of filling vacant judgeships away from the governor, who currently has sole decision-making authority for most judicial positions, toward the legislature. Instead, the governor would have to choose from at least two recommended candidates coming from a pool deemed qualified by a "nonpartisan judicial merit" commission. The legislature would fill the vacancy if the governor doesn't.



The question on ballot says the new system would rely "on professional qualifications instead of political influence when nominating justices and judges," but opponents say that's not true, insisting lawmakers would just pick friends and political allies.

The second amendmen t would give appointment powers over the state elections and ethics board to the legislature. The governor has made the appointments for over 100 years, but lawmakers have tried to wrest that control from Cooper since he was elected in November 2016.



The amendment also would state that the legislature controls the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates. Republicans call this clarifying language after a pair of state Supreme Court rulings - one initiated by Cooper and another by McCrory, Martin and Hunt - that found lawmakers retained too much power over several state panels.

But the governors and Democratic legislators say it would give the General Assembly tremendous power to appoint members to hundreds of boards and commissions, especially those where the governor gets to appoint some or most of the members.



North Carolina's governor has been historically one of the nation's weakest, becoming the last state chief executive to receive veto power in 1997. But the veto stamp doesn't apply to constitutional amendments.

Other amendments on fall ballots would mandate photo identification 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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Republican legislators, who have been in charge of the General Assembly since 2011, hope some of the amendment questions will attract conservative voters to the polls and help them retain their majorities. But it could backfire with the governors' opposition. The state Democratic Party also has decided to oppose all six amendments.



North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) released a joint statement responding to the news conference.

"We respectfully disagree with these governors that the people deserve no input on the filling of judicial vacancies, and that our state's elections and ethics board should be a partisan controlled body despite its key role in our democratic process," said Moore and Berger in the statement Monday.

"While it's not surprising former governors oppose checks and balances on the unilateral authority of their office, we are confident the people will support a more accountable approach to filling judicial vacancies and approve a bipartisan balance on critical boards like the state's ethics and elections commission over a system of purely political control."

ABC11's Ana Rivera contributed to this report.
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