There is a ton of work to be done in the 2019-2020 session, but because the structure and procedures of the General Assembly will affect all kinds of issues and all subsequent bills, we’d like to see some changes in the NCGA itself. We have three simple asks that would allow our legislators to be more representative of their constituents.
Once a bill is filed, it is then assigned to a committee. The idea is to have the representatives most knowledgeable on the subject flesh out the details and then bring it the floor for a full discussion. A bill pertaining to farming would go to the Agriculture Committee, or a budget would go to the Appropriations Committee. That happens of course, but all too often the committee structure is abused. For more information on committees’ members click here.
Damning bills to “Rules” never to see the light of day
It is estimated that only 10% of bills will pass from committee to the floor. While a natural weeding process absolutely should occur, in practice what happens is that the majority party often refers minority party bills to the Rules or other committees (that the majority appoints) with the intention of burying them.
The committee, whose members are appointed by the ruling party, can choose to take no action on a bill. This happens often enough that around the NCGA, The Rules Committee is often referred to as “the black hole” or “where bills go to die”.
This is another way the majority subverts the interests of the minority party and its constituents. There should be an audit or review process to ensure bills are not simply buried to suit the personal interests of the majority party.
Blocking party members from serving on committees
Committee members are appointed by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Pro Tempore. Most of the work on bills is done in committee, making these appointments incredibly important, but not necessarily fair or equitable.
We ask for a fair process to be determined to ensure parity of elected representatives to the standing and interim committees so that their constituents are equitably represented during the up front work of bill revisions.
In another partisan heavy handed move, this month the NCGA reinstituted a previously outlawed mechanism that allows the majority leadership to serve as “floaters” on any committee. David Lewis (R-Harnett), Speaker Pro Tem Sarah Stevens (R-Surry), Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne), and Deputy Majority Leader Brenden Jones (R-Columbus) were all named as “floaters.” Republicans argued this move would allow them to work better while other members were absent, but Democrats argued it was another thinly veiled attempt at control and undue influence. Amendments to correct this were immediately shot down.
The practice of floaters was ended once, and should be again, to not unduly weight the influence of one party over another.
No Gutting Bills
In updating the budget last summer, a group of Republican legislators took the unprecedented step of gutting an old non-related bill that was in limbo, and used that shell to craft their own budget adjustments in a closed door conference committee, with no Democrats present. It was a “process that did not allow for committee consideration, committee amendments, and floor amendments,” Democrat Darren Jackson stated. Because of this procedural sleight of hand, the bill was only eligible for a yes/no vote, with no opportunity for amendments.
It was a complete and total silencing of the voices of all citizens who are represented in Democratic districts, as well as Republicans who were not included on the conference committee drafting the plan. The political procedural stunt forced legislators into a damned if they did and damned if they didn’t yes/no vote. Dallas Woodhouse said, “if they don’t vote for it, they suffer the consequences.” It was incredible easy for the Republicans to spin any no votes as though legislators were against increasing teacher pay, for example, when in fact they were against other elements and the lack of debate.
In order to have transparency and good governance, this kind of subversion of the democratic process must end. We’re calling on legislators to end the practice of using “Conference Reports” in this way. Gutting previous unrelated bills is an obvious violation of democracy.
72 Hour Meeting Notice
Particularly since December 2016, the NCGA has called many sessions without adequate advanced notice or advanced notice of the subject to either the public or the minority party legislators. For any bill to be properly debated, all members should be aware of and prepared to debate the bill. The public should be allowed adequate time to submit input with their representatives in advance of any vote as well. Though there is a popular norm of 24 hours notice, there is not actually a regulation on the books.
The General Assembly has called numerous Special Sessions. In June of 2018 Senators J. Jackson, Van Duyn and Smith introduced Senate Bill 800 named “Actually Drain the Swamp”. Had it not been buried in committee, the bill would have required 48 hours notice to call a session, in addition to several other provisions geared at transparency, including providing video and audio streaming from the chambers. The very next month, the Republican leadership called yet another special session with less than 24 hours notice, during which they introduced H.B. 3 to remove the requirement for constitutional ballots to include a brief caption. This is a clear pattern to obscure the true nature of the bills. The senators pointed out in the SB 800, transparency is critical to voters’ confidence in the fairness of the legislative process of representational democracy.
We request 72 hours notice for major bills and a minimum of 24 hours notice for true emergency sessions, both with a clear subject and any existing materials distributed to all members of the legislature in advance.
Simple good governance to improve transparency and equitable representation would increase voters’ confidence in North Carolina’s law making body. Achieving parity in committees, transparency and notice for sessions, and agreeing not to use committees as a subversion mechanism are all easily achievable by the NCGA. Making these changes would increase cooperation as well as be a big win for legislators in renewing their commitment to the people they serve – the people who call North Carolina home.