N.C. House Majority Leader Paul Stam is certain of one thing: "There is no legal controversy" concerning the wording of a constitutional amendment that will appear on the statewide ballot next May. Voters will decide the fate of the amendment, which would make marriage between one man and one woman the "only domestic legal union" in the state.
Others, however — including some Democratic state legislators, business leaders and local-government officials around the state — fear the ballot wording could undermine existing domestic-partner benefits and hurt the state’s business climate.
One key issue is that what will appear on the ballot omits a sentence that was in the legislation passed earlier this month. Added in response to concerns from the state's business community, it states, in part: "This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party."
The omission sparked a flurry of questions about how voters — and, ultimately, the courts — will interpret the amendment. Stam says the questions amount to "making a mountain out of a molehill." As proof, the Wake County Republican gave Xpress a document comparing the original legislative language and the corresponding ballot wording for various constitutional amendments since the early 1970s. "We gave veto power to the governor that was 100 times longer" than the wording that appeared on the ballot, he quips.
The legislative leader says he’s confident the amendment would not affect benefits offered by private businesses. But would it eliminate domestic-partner benefits offered by local governments, as critics have maintained?
"It will affect them," Stam says bluntly.
Jeanette Doran, senior staff attorney at the nonpartisan N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, confirms Stam's opinion concerning the ballot wording.
"The state is not required to put the actual wording on the ballot," she explains, though she terms that fact "shocking," given the importance of keeping voters fully informed. And once voters approve an amendment, says Doran, it’s the original legislative language that has "ultimate control."
Thus, she maintains, the proposed marriage amendment "would have no impact on private companies conferring benefits. The constitution really is about what the government can do."
But Democratic members of Buncombe County’s legislative delegation (all of whom voted against the amendment legislation) remain concerned about the omitted sentence — and the amendment’s broader impacts.
“There were probably several legislators who believed this made the intent of the amendment more acceptable," Rep. Susan Fisher said in an email to Xpress, noting that she was "not aware at the time of voting that the language omitted the clause about business benefits."
And, wording aside, continued Fisher: "I believe that, either way, the business climate of this state will be affected if this amendment passes. We enjoy a very vibrant business climate in North Carolina for many reasons. … This kind of discriminatory disenfranchisement … will discourage businesses from locating here."
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Buncombe County also voiced misgivings, saying, “We had a list of probably 100 CEOs saying this would set them back and hurt their businesses. I do think it will affect the business climate in the state."
Stam does not dispute the fact that business leaders were concerned. "The main reason we added the second sentence,” he explains, was “to calm their fears.”
Rep. Patsy Keever, meanwhile, cites another concern. "We voted on it realizing it would likely be taking away [benefits] in Asheville … [and] other municipalities that already give some partnership benefits," she points out, adding, "I think it's very confusing to the voters, and that makes it hard to support either side."
Other voices, other rooms
In a Sept. 11 letter to state lawmakers, elected officials in cities and counties that currently offer domestic-partner benefits called the legislation a "threat" to the state's ability to recruit a diverse work force in a global economy, saying it would "strip public employees of domestic-partner benefits." Asheville Vice Mayor Brownie Newman signed the letter, along with officials from Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, as well as Mecklenburg, Durham and Orange counties.
City Attorney Bob Oast says he and his counterparts are exploring the amendment's potential effects, noting, "We are looking at all aspects of this.”
For his part, Stam asserts that governmental entities could still offer those benefits simply by allowing each employee to name one other person who would also be eligible for benefits, regardless of whether they lived together. That, however, would be "a foolish thing to do," he maintains, speculating that it would jeopardize group health-insurance policy rates.
Attempts to reach Buncombe County's Republican legislators proved unsuccessful. Sen. Tom Apodaca was out of town, and Rep. Tim Moffitt did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls.
— Nelda Holder can be reached at email@example.com.