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General Assembly Passes Rewritten Constitutional Amendments

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North Carolina legislators on Monday finished revamping two constitutional amendments aimed for the ballot this November after a judicial panel rejected their initial proposals because it decided they were misleading.

On near party-line votes, the Senate voted to approve the newly worded amendments. The House had approved them on Friday after the Republican-controlled General Assembly convened a special session to consider new amendments.

Both amendments, if approved by voters in November, would take the power to appoint members of the state elections and ethics board from the executive and give it to the legislature. One also would swing power held by the governor to fill judicial vacancies to the legislature.

A three-judge panel ruled last week that ballot questions for the initial versions of the amendments, approved by lawmakers in June, did not fairly and impartially describe the changes lawmakers are proposing.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said after Monday's vote that the new versions "fairly and accurately depict what the amendments do."

Constitutional amendments aren't subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto, but he sued to challenge the initially proposed amendments, which led to the judicial panel's ruling. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said late Monday "further legal action" should be anticipated.

One amendment keeps intact the earlier proposal to give lawmakers control over which candidates the governor can appoint to fill appeals or trial court vacancies. Currently, a governor makes a choice, in most cases, without any legislative participation.

The other amendment , as rewritten, leaves in place a proposal for the constitution to establish a bipartisan eight-member elections and ethics board. Legislative leaders from both major parties would decide who could serve, not the governor.

The second amendment omits a widely criticized previous proposal that stated the legislature controlled the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates. That could have opened the door to the General Assembly deciding who serves on dozens of key state regulatory panels.

Cooper and Democratic legislators still see the new amendments as a GOP power grab.

"You sit there and try to say it's making some modest improvements. The fact, once again, it's false, it's misleading, it's taking more powers from the governor, plain and simple," Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham County told Republicans during floor debate.

One Democrat — outgoing Sen. Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County — voted with the Republicans on the amendments, both of which received the more than 30 votes for amendments to clear the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Onslow County said the public — not legislators — will have the final say on the amendments: "The people will vote on these decisions."

The action came as lawyers for Cooper, two interest groups that sued, the state elections board and Republican lawmakers filed a flurry of motions and briefs Monday with state appeals courts related to last week's ruling.

Monday's legislation didn't officially repeal the previous amendment being challenged in court. Lawyers for Berger and Moore filed a motion late Monday to withdraw their appeal of the ruling, Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said. Republicans say that means the previous amendments will be permanently blocked, leaving Monday's amendments to replace them.

But Democratic legislators and a Cooper spokesman contend the absence of repeal language means there could be eight amendments on the ballot this fall. There are already four on other topics set for the November ballots. They say two pairs of questions on the judicial vacancies and board appointments with conflicting language would lead to voter confusion.

"Rather than repeal their old misleading amendments, Republicans have passed more misleading amendments to erode checks and balances in our state's constitution," Porter said in an email.

Time is running out on other litigation, since federal law requires absentee ballots to be issued by Sept. 22, and state election officials need to finalize and print ballots.