North Carolina’s Constitution is essentially a social contract between the people and its government.
Former House Speaker Joe Mavretic has long maintained that every generation should review and renew that social contract but it’s been almost 50 years, more than a generation, since such a review was undertaken.
The 1971 Constitution of North Carolina was the culmination of a process that began in 1967, when the North Carolina State Bar conducted a study into possible changes. After many months of deliberation a draft constitution was proposed, presented to the General Assembly which, after lengthy debate and many votes, in 1969 overwhelmingly passed it and asked voters to affirm the new Constitution in November 1970. It passed by a 61 percent margin and took effect in 1971.
Since that time we have added more than 20 amendments. Some include allowing the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to serve two consecutive four-year terms, requiring that the legislature pass a balanced state budget, permitting the governor the veto power (one of the last states in the nation to do so), requiring that all judges be lawyers and allowing state income taxes to be computed on the same basis as the federal income tax. Some amendments removed articles, such as the elimination of the poll or capitation tax and removing the limits for computation of property taxes. The latest amendment, in 2012, was Amendment One, the so-called “same sex” provision. It stated the only recognized domestic union in our state was a marriage between one man and one woman, an amendment declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.
Almost every session of the General Assembly sees further amendments proposed and the 2017 session is no exception. No less than four are currently being discussed, including capping the personal income tax rate at 5.5 percent, changing the method by which members of the State Board of Education are selected, limiting the powers of both state and local government to take private property for public purposes (Eminent Domain) and repealing Article 1, Section 4 of the current Constitution prohibiting our state from seceding from the United States.
In recent years we have seen a large increase in the number of court cases requiring our judiciary to interpret our Constitution. Coupled with the fact it has been a long time since the entire document was reviewed and so many amendments have been added it is now time to demand a top to bottom re-examination of this essential document that defines the functions of our government, duties of various officials and our rights as citizens.
Constitutional changes are a serious proposition that demand reasoned deliberations, input from many voices and considerations as to the impact changes might have. The State Bar could once again be the group to study and recommend revisions to our Constitution, sending them to our legislature for further debate and approval. This process would likely take some years to complete, but we strongly suggest that our state and its people would be better served to do so instead of continuing the practice of piecemeal amendments.
Some of the currently proposed amendments might have merit, but there is no urgent argument why they could and should not wait until the entire Constitution undergoes scrutiny and revision. Let us urge our lawmakers to initiate such a process rather than stringing even more amendments to a 46-year-old document.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC Spin.