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October 22,2004
North Carolinians participating in the 2004 election will be faced with a lengthy ballot beginning with the race for President. The ballot continues with a tortuous process of voting on numerous partisan federal and state races, non partisan judicial races, and the election of members for Soil and Water Conservation Districts around the state. Buried at the end of all these choices for elected office is perhaps the most important decision that voters will face – whether to amend the N.C. Constitution. There are, in fact, three proposed amendments to what has been called the fundamental and organic law of our state. Our State Constitution, since its adoption in December of 1776, has served as the citizens’ ultimate mechanism for limiting power given to elected officials. Once again, however, citizens are being asked to give up a portion of that constitutional authority to limit the acts of elected officials under the guise of economic development and promoting jobs.

Amendment 1 poses more than just a policy question about the merits of the so-called “project development financing” or “self-financing” bonds to benefit selected local private projects. The proposal and the method by which it is being presented to voters strike at the very integrity of the process for amending our State Constitution. First and foremost, the actual proposed amendment language, as passed by the General Assembly, does not appear on the ballot to be voted on by the electorate! Instead, the ballot presents a slanted summary of the proposed amendment, worded in such a fashion as to gently incline the casual reader to vote for it. It is of questionable constitutionality to purportedly submit a constitutional amendment to the people, yet inaccurately and incompletely place its text and/or actual meaning on the ballot.

Secondly, the actual amendment and the version on the ballot carefully and subtly hide the core change in the constitution that voters are being asked to approve, namely, giving up their right to vote. Since 1868, our State Constitution has required that voters, who will be impacted by local debt, decide in an election whether so-called self-financing bonds or other proposed debt for local private development may be incurred by a local government. A vote for Amendment 1 will eliminate this constitutional right to vote and give unchecked authority to elected officials to issue the bonds without a vote of the people. What is so terribly troubling is that a careful examination of both the actual amendment language and the summary on the ballot do little, if anything, to inform voters that they are giving up their right to vote and approve local actions which could in fact result in higher taxes.

Changing our State Constitution is serious business and, at minimum, voters are entitled to a clear and accurate statement of the proposed change. North Carolina voters are not getting it with Amendment 1 and for that reason, if for no other, it should be defeated.

Submitted by Robert F. Orr, retired Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and Executive Director/ Senior Counsel, the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law