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Lawmakers return for second run on 2 constitutional amendments

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RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers returned to work Friday as Republicans took a second run at putting two constitutional amendments on fall ballots after a court found their earlier efforts wanting.

In a special session announced with one day's notice, the House agreed on two new amendment proposals with ballot questions that GOP lawmakers say will comply with the majority's ruling on a three-judge panel this week.

The court had ruled that the questions for the amendments as initially passed in June did not fairly and impartially describe the proposed alterations that voters would be asked to consider in November. The two amendments would broadly shift powers from the executive branch to the legislature.

The legislators began acting even as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's office argued the replacement language is still unconstitutional, and the two living GOP ex-governors urged the amendments just stay off the ballot. The judges sided with Cooper and the state NAACP, who had sued to block referendums.

Legislative leaders appealed the ruling, and late Thursday the state Court of Appeals agreed to delay that order temporarily. Still, GOP leaders decided to gavel in a new session, redo the two amendments and seek to submit them to voters in altered forms.

The two new amendments, which the Senate is expected to approve Monday, contain new ballot language that Republicans say complies with the judges wanted.

"These amendments, we believe, should go to the voters," House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said after floor votes. He said the proposals would bring more power to citizens through their elected representatives: "Sure, the governor is going to have a little less authority but guess what - ultimately it's to the people and we believe that's a great thing."

One amendment keeps intact the earlier proposal that would give lawmakers control over which candidates the governor can appoint to fill a judicial vacancy.

The other amendment , as rewritten, omits the Republicans' previous effort to add language to the constitution saying the legislature controls 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.

The second amendment does leave 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 would serve. Currently, there's a nine-member board.

The elections and ethics board has been a flashpoint in the power struggle between Cooper and GOP legislative leaders since Cooper was elected in late 2016. Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and sponsor of the legislation, said the elections board amendment would once and for all resolve that dispute with Cooper: "We're asking the voters to weigh in and settle this question."

House Democrats argued that having an even-numbered board would foster tie votes and leave elections and ethics matters unresolved. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said a deadlocked board would "protect legislators by stopping corruption investigations," although the board only governs campaign finance cases for lawmakers, not ethics matters.

Cooper can't veto constitutional amendments. It's unclear if more amendment lawsuits are ahead.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, lamented a second special session since this year's scheduled session ended June 29 for what he called "power grab amendments." Each extra legislative day costs taxpayers more than $40,000.

Constitutional amendments require 72 House votes and 30 Senate votes for passage. Republicans hold 75 House and 35 Senate seats. The House approved one amendment with 72 votes and the other with 73 in party-line votes, save for one GOP member voting against the judicial vacancies amendment.

House Republicans acted even though former Republican Govs. Jim Martin and Pat McCrory wrote an open letter Friday urging them not to replace the amendments. They wrote it would be better to remove them and eliminate a "major distraction" as voters consider four other proposed amendments still on November ballots.

But Martin told The Charlotte Observer later Friday he was encouraged by the alterations to the amendment previously focused on boards and commissions, and McCrory said the changes appeared positive.

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