Politics & Government

Legislature’s last-minute rush prompts criticism

Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, takes a moment during a pause in action on the House floor at 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. The House began its work day – the final one of the 2015 session – at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, takes a moment during a pause in action on the House floor at 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. The House began its work day – the final one of the 2015 session – at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. cdowell@ncinsider.com

Ten hours before the state legislature adjourned for the year, a House committee was rapidly adding dozens of provisions to its final bill.

The bill was a “technical corrections” bill aimed at fixing mistakes in laws passed earlier in the year. But legislators saw an opportunity to add a few last-minute policy provisions, such as a new fundraising entity for Council of State members.

Paper copies of the amendments were distributed to lawmakers, then approved within minutes. No copies were available to lobbyists, reporters and others present at the meeting.

That prompted confusion for a Department of Public Instruction official who was asked by lawmakers to comment on an education proposal. She asked the committee for a copy and five minutes to read it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she told them.

Lack of transparency and time for public input was a common theme in the General Assembly’s final days in Raleigh, with lawmakers using a variety of maneuvers to move proposals that hadn’t previously been made public.

Some were controversial, such as a move to restrict powers of local government and a swipe at Planned Parenthood after a national controversy about fetal tissue donations.

Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, said he’d be inclined to support the restrictions on local governments. But he blasted the process used by Sen. Chad Barefoot and Rep. Paul Stam, both fellow Republicans, to move the legislation.

“I really think this is a dangerous situation,” he told fellow legislators in a floor speech, referring to the precedent the move would set. “Someday, it’s going to be something that you think is horrible – that you think someone else is doing the wrong way – and you’ll feel helpless to prevent it.”

He called on his Republican colleagues to take time to “get it right.”

“It means giving up something you might like to preserve the greater good,” Blust said.

When asked why he’d added the local government provisions to a bill about counselors and sex education during closed-door negotiations, Stam blamed the other chamber.

“The Senate insisted on this procedure for this bill,” he said.

And in the Senate, Barefoot dismissed the concerns. “The legislature moves the way the legislature moves,” he said. “I think everybody’s ready to go home.”

Longtime observers of the legislature say unvetted proposals tend to surface in the final days of every session, regardless of which party is in charge.

“This is the time all the bad stuff appears overnight,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Knightdale Democrat. “This is not the way we should make our laws.”

Jane Pinsky of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform says the legislature could easily change its practices to allow more transparency.

Her group recommends that new versions of a bill be posted online at least 24 hours before the vote. Currently, the House rules require bills to be sent to committee members by 9 p.m. the night before a vote, but the documents aren’t made available online.

Pinsky also takes issue with meetings where proposed amendments to a bill aren’t offered to the public in attendance. “We didn’t get to see the legislation they were talking about,” she said. “It would be really nice if they could have used the screens in that (committee) room to put the legislation up.”

Also drawing criticism: Legislative leaders’ decision to extend Tuesday’s final session to 4 a.m. on Wednesday, rather than adjourning and finishing the year’s business in daylight hours later on Wednesday.

While it was the Senate’s first after-midnight session this year, the House worked into the wee hours of the morning four times since January. An earlier late-night House debate devolved into legislators giggling about monkeys while discussing regulations for exotic animals.

As dawn approached Wednesday, some lawmakers fell asleep in their seats. Others played music or passed a football to stay awake. And 37 House members and seven Senate members were already gone before the final 4 a.m. vote.

They tell truck drivers not to drive more than eight hours a day. Maybe legislators shouldn’t legislate more than eight hours a day.

Jane Pinsky of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform

By then, some had spent 20 consecutive hours at the Legislative Building. Then, at 4 a.m., they voted on a fresh 48-page bill.

“They tell truck drivers not to drive more than eight hours a day,” Pinsky said. “Maybe legislators shouldn’t legislate more than eight hours a day.”

Asked about the lengthy session Wednesday morning, House Speaker Tim Moore defended the practice.

Moore said legislative leaders knew what bills they had to deal with by Tuesday morning but that the process takes time – both with printing and preparing documents and then debating the issues.

“We didn’t cut off debate,” he said. “We let things go. And that takes time. We could have gotten it done a lot quicker if we’d stopped debate all the time. But we wanted to let folks have their say, and now we’re making sure everything’s ready to go before we adjourn.”

Patrick Gannon of The Insider state government news service contributed to this report

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments