Politics & Government

‘Blank bills’ in the NC Senate: Good idea or just wrong?

Mitch Kokai, spokesman and political analyst for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation
Mitch Kokai, spokesman and political analyst for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation

Each of the 50 North Carolina Senate members has introduced a nearly identical bill. The bills contain no details. None.

These are known as “blank bills,” and they follow a simple formula. Here is one of them:

“A Bill to be Entitled. An Act Relating to the 49th Senatorial District. The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts: Section 1 – This act relates only to the 49th Senatorial District. Section 2 – This act is effective when it becomes law.”

That’s the entire bill introduced by Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Democrat who represents Buncombe County.

As it stands now, Van Duyn’s bill does nothing. That’s true of all 50 blank bills introduced this year. And that is by design. Senators had until the middle of this month to file every bill that would originate in the chamber this year, even though this is the long legislative session that won’t end until summer.

So what if something happens in a district later this year that needs action by the General Assembly? Van Duyn says these blank bills serve as a place holder.

“I can take that place-holder bill and amend it to do what needs to be done for that constituency,” she said.

That sounds like good government: state senators trying to be there for their constituents. But the inherent flexibility of blank bills can be an issue.

“Not only is the blank bill acting as a place holder but the title of it is a place holder,” said Paige Worsham, senior policy counsel for the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Blank bill titles are as generic as their provisions, often consisting of just the number of a senatorial district followed by the words “Local Act 1.” Those titles sometimes don’t change even when the content of the bills does.

This potentially masks the content being considered by legislators. And it has political watchdog groups on both the left and the right concerned.

“It is a practice that makes things less transparent, and that’s never in the public interest,” says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the left-leaning N.C. Policy Watch.

Mitch Kokai, spokesman and political analyst for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, agrees. “That’s a problem,” he said. “Don’t use a blank bill just to hide a piece of legislation.”

And while neither can point to a specific instance of a blank bill being used to hide a controversial piece of legislation, they both use the same example of a 2013 bill to show the General Assembly has used a similar tactic.

“A motorcycle safety bill that was changed to include restrictions on abortion services,” Fitzsimon said.

“Motorcycle helmet restrictions or something of that sort and when it came back it had to do with abortion,” Kokai said. “There is the potential with blank bills that you could see something like that. And it, in fact, could be quite controversial.”

Kokai and Fitzsimon also agree the solutions for this could be easy: Relax the bill filing deadline and/or have the N.C. Senate do what the N.C. House has already done – ban blank bills outright.