- Associated Press - Thursday, August 23, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Stymied by a court that ruled their ballot questions misleading, North Carolina Republican lawmakers decided quickly to hold a special session to replace two proposed constitutional amendments for November.

But House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger also appeared ready Thursday to scale back the scope of their efforts to shift executive powers to the legislature through alterations to the state constitution. Bipartisan pressure has come upon them from the state’s five living ex-governors and, most recently, the six living former chief justices.

Draft legislation expected before the House when the General Assembly reconvenes Friday deletes broad language that, according to critics, would have opened the door for lawmakers to make all appointments to scores of boards and commissions. Those bills, however, would still attempt to give the legislature the decision-making power in choosing both the state elections board and the governor’s options to fill appeals and trial court vacancies.

The special session is in response to a ruling by a panel of state judges Tuesday that found questions for two of the six amendments submitted to voters don’t fairly and impartially describe the proposed alterations. The judges sided with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the state NAACP, both of which sued separately to stop those referendums, which lawmakers approved in June.

The stakes are significant for these amendments in the ongoing power struggle between Cooper and the GOP-dominated General Assembly on the cusp of the fall elections, where energized Democrats seek to end Republican veto-proof majorities.

Motions to appeal Tuesday’s ruling were quickly filed, but GOP legislators contend new legislation would help amendments on these topics remain on the ballots and diffuse the court case. Time for those appeals is dwindling, as ballots also must be finalized within days so that they can be provided to absentee voter no later than Sept. 22.

“We hope this will end the unnecessary litigation and allow our state to move forward with the democratic process to let the people decide these issues for themselves,” Moore said in a release. The Senate wouldn’t vote on replacement amendments until Monday, Berger said. Even if the legislature approves new amendments, they could face court challenges and would still need voter approval in the fall.

Cooper and other Democrats have called the previous amendments a brazen power grab by the GOP. Republicans countered they would promote transparency in filling judgeships and rebalance government powers following recent state Supreme Court cases favoring governors.

Two proposed replacement bills were released Thursday evening to House members by Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis.

One draft proposal would delete the previous language stating the legislature controls the appointments and duties of any board or commission it creates. The proposed amendment would still ask voters to enshrine a bipartisan eight-member elections and ethics board in the constitution. While the governor would still formally appoint the members, however, lawmakers would direct whom the appointees were.

The draft for the second proposal leaves in place a process directing a governor to fill a judicial vacancy with someone coming from at least two nominees agreed to by the legislature Those nominees would originate from a pool of qualified candidates. It also seeks to clarify that changes wouldn’t diminish the governor’s veto powers.

The weakening of veto power was highlighted when the living ex-governors - three Democrats and two Republicans - gathered last week to urge voters defeat the two amendments, saying they would wrench away gubernatorial powers and checks on the legislature and judiciary. On Thursday, the former state Supreme Court chief justices led a group of attorneys that also urged their defeat, saying if approved they “would strike a severe blow to our most cherished principles of balanced government.”

Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Senate’s presiding officer, issued the formal session proclamation Thursday afternoon after receiving signatures from at least 72 House members and 30 senators required to call themselves back to Raleigh.

The session isn’t likely to address the other four amendments still on the ballot. Those would mandate photo identification to vote in person, lower the maximum income tax rate allowed from 10 percent to 7 percent, expand the rights of crime victims and create a right to hunt and fish.

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