From 1869 to 1968, a total of ninety-seven (97) proposals for amending the State Constitution were submitted to the voters. All but one of these proposals originated in the General Assembly. Sixty-nine (69) proposals were ratified by the voters, while twenty-eight (28) were rejected.
After the new Amendments of the early 1960s were ratified, pressure for Constitutional change subsided. While the frequent use of the Amendment Process had relieved many of the pressures that otherwise would have strengthened the case for Constitutional reform, it had not kept the Constitution current in all respects. Constitutional Amendments were usually drafted in response to particular problems; they were generally limited in scope in order to achieve an essential goal, while arousing minimum opposition. This strategy often meant that Amendments were not as comprehensive as they should have been to avoid inconsistency in the end.
Obsolete and invalid provisions cluttered the Constitution and misled unwary readers. Moreover, in the absence of a comprehensive re-appraisal, there had been no recent occasion to reconsider Constitutional provisions that, while obsolete, were not frustrating or unpopular enough to provoke curative Amendments.
In the Fall of 1967, Governor Daniel Killian Moore recommended to the North Carolina State Bar that it take the lead in making a study of the need for revision of the State Constitution. The Bar's response was prompt and affirmative. The North Carolina State Bar and the North Carolina Bar Association joined to create the North Carolina State Constitution Study Commission, a joint agency of the two organizations.
The Commission's twenty-five (25) members included fifteen (15) attorneys and ten (10) layment who were chosen by a steering committee from the two organizations. The Chairman elected was former state Chief Justice Emery Byrd Denny.
The Constitution Study Commission worked diligently throughout most of 1968, and it was soon clear that there were just too many potential Amendments to be submitted to the voters as independent proposisitons. However, this Commssion also did not wish to embody all of its proposed changes in a single document to be approved or disapproved by the voters in a single vote. A compromise procedure was developed and approved by the General Assembly.
Those proposals for change deemed to be sufficiently fundamental or potentially controversial in character were set out as independent Amendment propositions to be considered by the General Assembly and by the voters on their own independent merits. Therefore, opposition to latter proposals would not be cumulative. The separate proposals framed by the Commission were ten (10) in number, and included one extensive revision of the Finance Article, which was largely the work of the Local Government Study Commission, a legislatively-established group then at work on the revision of Constitutional and Statutory provisions pertaining to local government. The Amendments were so drafted that any number of combinations of them might be ratified by the voters and still produce a consistent product.
The General Assembly of 1969, which received the recommendations of the State Constitution Study Commission, reviewed a total of twenty-eight (28) proposals for Constitutional Amendments. Constitutional revision was an active topic throughout the session. The Proposed Constitution of 1971, in the course of seven roll-call votes (four in the House, three in the Senate), received only one negative vote.
The independent Amendments fared variously; six (6) were approved by the General Assembly and submitted to the voters. These included the executive reorganization amendment, the finance amendment, an amendment to the income tax provision, a re-assignment of the benefits of escheats, authorization for calling extra legislative sessions on the petition of members of the General Assembly, and abolition of the literacy test for voting. All but the last two had been recommended byt the State Constitution Study Commission. At the general election of November 3, 1970, the Proposed Constitution of 1971 was approved by a vote of 393,759 to 251,132. Five of the six separate Amendments were also approved by the voters; the literacy test repeal was rejected.
The Constitution of 1971 took effect on July 1, 1971. So did the executive reorganization amendment, the income tax amendment, the escheats amendment, and the amendment with respect to extra legislative sessions, all of which amended the Constitution of 1971 at the instant it took effect. The finance amendment, which made extensive revisions in the Constitution of 1971 with respect to debt and local taxation, took effect on July 1, 1973. The two-year delay in its effective date was required in order for the General Assembly of 1973 to conform state statutes on local government finance to the terms of the amendment.
The new Constitution retained the old fourteen-article organization of its predecessor, but the contents of several articles - notably Articles I, II, III, V, IX, and X - were re-arranged into a more logical sequence. Sections were shifted from one article to another to arrange the subject matter more appropriately. Obsolete and erroneous text was deleted, as were provisions essentially legislative in nature. Direct and current language usage was implemented, along with the standardization in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other essentially-editorial matters. Although not a primary objective, the new Constitution was much shorter and succinct than its predecessor.
The Declaration of Rights (Article I), which dates from 1776 with a few 1868 additions, was retained with a few new additions. The organization of the article was improved and the frequently used subjunctive mood was replaced by the imperative in order to clarify that the provisions of Article I are commands and not mere admonitions.
In the course of reorganizing and abbreviating Article III (the Executive), the governor's role as chief executive was brought into clear focus. The scattered statements of the governor's duties were collected in one section to which was added a brief statement of his budget powers, formerly merely statutory in origin. The governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general were added to the Council of State as ex offico members.
Since it had recently been rewritten in 1962, Article IV (the Judicial) required very little editorial alteration and no substative changes.
Amendments to Article V (Finance) were extensive. Provisions were transferred to Article V from four other articles. The former provisions were expanded in some instances to clarify the meaning of excessively-condensed provisions. The only substantive change of note gave a wife, who is the primary wage-earner, the same constitutionally-guaranteed income tax exemption previously granted to a husband; although she already had that benefit under statute.
The changes to Article VI (Suffrage & Eligibility to Office) added out-of-state and federal felonies to felonies committed against the State of North Carolina as grounds for denial of voting and office-holding rights. The General Assembly was directed to enace general laws governing voter registration.
The Constitution of 1971 prohibits the concurrent holding of two or more elective state offices or of a federal office and an elective state office. It expressly prohibits the concurrent holding of any two or more appointive offices or places of trust or profit, or of any combination of elective and appointive officves or places of trust or profit, except as the General Assembly may allow by general law.
The legislature retained the power to provide for local government.
Article IX (Education) was re-arranged to improve upon the inconsistent treatment of public schools and higher education. Obsolete provisions were eliminated - especially those pertaining to racial matters. The school term was extended from six months (1918) to a minimum of nine months, where it had been fixed by statute. The possibly restrictive age limits on tuition-free public schooling were removed. School attendance was now mandatory.
The Superintendent of Public Instruction was eliminated as a voting member of the State Board of Education, but retained as the board's Secretary. An additional At-Large appointed was added to the board.
The General Assembly was authorized by the changes in Article X (Homesteads & Exemptions) to set the amounts of the personal property exemption and the homestead exemption.
Five Constitutional Amendments of 1971:
By the end of the 1960s, the State government included over two hundred (200) state administrative agencies. The State Constitutional Study Commission concluded that no governor could effectively oversee an administrative apparatus of such disjointed complexity.
The first Amendment patterned after several other states required the General Assembly to reduce the number of administrative departments to not more than twenty-five (25) by 1975, and to give the governor the authority to reorganize and consolidate agencies, subject to disapproval by either house.
The second Amendment supplemented the existing authority of the governor to call extra sessions of the General Assembly with the advice of the Council of State. The Amendment provided that, on written request of three-fifths of all the members of each house, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives must convene an extra session of the General Assembly. Thus, the legislative branch is now able to convene itself, notwithstanding the contrary wishes of the governor.
The most significant of the separate Amendments - and in some ways the most important of the Constitutional changes ratified in 1970 - is the Finance Amendment. Effective on July 1, 1973, it:
- Prohibited all forms of capitation or poll tax
The fourth Amendment also dealt with taxataion. It struck out a schedule of specified minimun exemptions from the Constitutional provision on the state income tax, leaving those exemptions to be fixed by the General Assembly. This change enabled the legislature to provide for the filing of joint tax returns by husbands and wives and to adopt piggyback state income tax to be computed on the same basis as the federal income tax, thus relieving the taxpayer of two sets of computations. Retained the maximum tax rate of ten percent.
The fifth and final Amendment assigned to a special fund the benefits of property escheating to the state in cases where no heir or other lawful claimant came forward. These were to help needy North Carolina students to attend public institutions of higher education.
The one Amendment defeated by the voters in 1970 would have repealed the state Constitutional requirement that, in order to register as a voter, one must be able to read and write the English language. The requirement had already been nullified by federal legislation and the failure to repeal had no practical effect.