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Weight of history bears down on amendments

As five former governors assembled earlier this week to assail proposed constitutional amendments that would weaken the state’s chief executive, my thoughts turned to another former governor: James E. Holshouser Jr., the first Republican elected in the 20th Century who died five years ago. The story of Holshouser’s balancing act bears repeating as a slice of history relevant today.

Even before Holshouser took the oath of office in 1973, outgoing Democratic Gov. Bob Scott and the Advisory Budget Commission of powerful Democratic lawmakers called for tax cuts. Holshouser quietly resisted the pressure, proposing neither cuts nor hikes. Rather, he proposed spending the state’s growing revenues at that time to buy parkland, to initiate rural health clinics, and to extend kindergartens into all public elementary schools.

In 1973 and 1974, the GOP governor and a Democratic-majority legislature basically agreed not to cut taxes in favor of an array of education, environmental, and health measures. At the same time, they engaged in partisan wrangling over the power of the governor’s office. Stung by the Republican’s victory, Democrats introduced “stripping bills’’ to weaken Holshouser, who pushed back and ultimately prevailed.

Fast forward to the first year of the 21st Century. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley took office in 2001 as North Carolina lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in a national recession. The state’s budget shortfall ran beyond $1 billion.

In response to the recession, Easley declared a fiscal emergency, and he proposed a combination of reduced state expenditures and higher taxes. He went on statewide television to make the case for a tax increase. The legislature approved a half-cent sales tax increase and raising the top income tax rate by .50. And Easley subsequently prodded the legislature to start the state lottery.

The additional revenues allowed North Carolina, even as it coped with a downturn, to take steps forward in education. The Easley administration launched “More at Four’’ (now called NC PreK) and “Learn and Earn,’’ a blending of high school and community college through which young people can earn a high-school diploma and an associate’s degree or credential in five years.

At times Easley, too, had a contentious relationship with legislative leaders. For two years, he had to deal with the unusual situation of a state House so divided that it had co-speakers, a Democrat and a Republican on alternative days. Also, Easley showed that a governor could advocate tax increases and still win re-election, as he did in 2004.

In their joint appearance in the State Capitol, the five governors — two Republicans, three Democrats — focused on the amendments written by today’s Republican legislative majority that would severely constrain a governor’s appointment power in filling both executive and judicial positions. They did not specifically address the proposed amendment that would drop the constitutional limit on the income tax rate from 10 percent to 7 percent.

In combination, however, the proposed amendments would have serious long-term consequences. By imposing a too-low cap on the income tax and by crippling any governor’s ability to manage, the amendments would make state government less able to respond to economic conditions and to public aspirations, especially for education and job training that propels the American dream.

The struggle over executive and legislative powers dates to the founding of the nation. North Carolina has had a long historical tilt in favor of a strong legislative branch. Indeed, a well-functioning democracy needs an accessible and knowledgeable assembly of freely elected representatives of the people.

But no less an authority on checks-and-balances in American government than James Madison, writing in the 1788 Federalist Papers No. 47, cited North Carolina for going too far at its outset in giving the legislative branch power to appoint the governor, as well as executive office-holders and judges. It was not until the 1835 state Constitution that North Carolina voters got the right to elect their governors.

In The Federalist No. 48, Madison warned tartly that “the legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.” And he observed that “the danger from legislative usurpations, which, by assembling all power into the same hands, must lead to the same tyranny as is threatened by executive usurpations.”

No doubt Jim Holshouser — and perhaps even James Madison of Virginia — would have joined former Governors Jim Hunt, Jim Martin, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue, and Pat McCrory in defining for voters the long-term consequences of power-shifting amendments to their own well-being.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.