Killing snakes in the legislature

By: Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

Ever since that episode in Eden’s garden, the one where humans were enticed into eating the forbidden fruit, serpents have been considered the lowest of creatures. Most loathe the slithering reptile and use pejoratives to describe undesirable people as “lowlifes” or “snakes in the grass.” We don’t like and don’t want to be around them.

Former Gov. Jim Martin went a step further recently, saying, “You have to kill a snake at every opportunity.” His comments were not specifically about reptiles as much as about snake-like actions taken by our legislature. Martin, along with two other former governors, opposed the attempt by lawmakers to upset the traditional balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches of state government and left no doubt he opposes their proposal to strip the appointive powers of the governor as a lowdown power grab.

The power of North Carolina’s governor, regardless of who might occupy the office at any given moment, is among the weakest of any state in the nation. The framers of our government, fearful of creating a power-hungry tyrant, designed the office to be subservient to and appointed by members of the Assembly to one-year terms. It wasn’t until 1836 that voters were allowed to elect their governor and even then for only a two-year term. The 1868 Constitution, passed following the Civil War, extended the gubernatorial term to four years, but only allowed the executive to serve one term. Our legislature finally put gubernatorial succession to the voters and Jim Hunt was the first to win a second four-year term in 1980. Not until 1996 was the governor given the power to veto legislation.

The lines were clearly drawn. The more powerful legislature passes laws and the executive branch administers those laws through agencies and boards within state government. Our highest court has pretty consistently ruled that governors need to be able appoint boards and commissions so as to adequately ensure the administration of them.

Even so, every recent governor has faced legislatures that wanted even more control. Jim Hunt took lawmakers to court in 1982 and won the power to appoint members of the Environmental Management Commission. Martin, only the third Republican governor elected since Reconstruction, faced an openly hostile legislature run by Democrats and when Republican Jim Gardner was elected lieutenant governor in 1988, lawmakers stripped most of the power from that office. Former Gov. Pat McCrory also took the legislature to court and won the ability to appoint members to executive boards. And the 18 months of Roy Cooper’s administration can be likened to a constant wrestling match.

The current legislature appears to want our governor to be little more than a toothless tiger, as evidenced by their attempts to remove the executive’s ability to make appointments to some 400 boards and commissions. It’s no wonder Martin compares the actions to that of a snake and his admonishment, along with that of another former Republican and Democrat, is for us to overwhelmingly defeat the measure and send a message to our lawmakers that we strongly believe in separations of power in our state. They are correct. This proposed amendment should be defeated.

As Martin said, “The legislature should be making laws, not running the government.” Based on their most recent actions it appears our part-time legislators want to do both.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at

Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist