Promises of legislative openness evaporate

By: - July 6, 2011 7:03 am

In January the promise was bright and seductive. The new Republican leadership in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly was going to transform the way business was done. Things were going to be open, transparent and inclusive. Unfortunately, as we approach July, that promise is tarnished and the charm and seduction of this open new leadership has faded.

Instead of making good on their promise of open government owned by the people, legislative leaders have brought back the worst practices they once railed against – and with a vengeance.

For many, many years as the minority party, the Republicans complained about the high-handed, sometimes almost dictatorial, way the Democrats ran things – closed meetings, bills and amendments appearing from nowhere in the middle of committee meetings, little or no time to study the budget, deals being made behind closed doors without input from rank and file members, debate being choked off, things being run by small groups of party leaders. Those complaints were quite frequently justified. Many of the members of the General Assembly and the citizens of the state were shortchanged by this behavior. It contributed to cynicism about and lack of confidence in government in our state.

In January when the Republicans took control, the promise was open meetings, time to study bills, citizen input – a change from the way things had been. It seemed to start well but then the bad habits quickly returned.

In May, Senate leaders completely dispensed with normal legislative process on a hugely controversial bill of great magnitude – a proposal to tie the extension of federal unemployment benefits to the state budget. The proposal went straight from being drafted to the full Senate for a vote. Unfortunately, no one in the public had seen the bill before and copies weren’t available to the public (even online).

The House has been as guilty as the Senate. In the last two weeks of the session, floor debate was cut off more than two dozen times. The majority party used a parliamentary procedure to force the body to a vote rather than allowing debate on a range of issues both big and small, and sometimes even on non-controversial issues. The backbone of a democracy is the right to speak out- even when you are not saying anything important, repeating what your colleagues have said or are just being a bore. Cutting off debate is cutting out the core of democracy and the Republicans should be ashamed.

During the closing days of session, the House Republican caucus (a group that normally meets in private) met in a room that is wired to stream the audio to the press and the public. Proving that they are not part of the tech-savvy generation, lawmakers accidentally left the microphones on. The meeting was not audible to the public, but it was to reporters in the legislative the press room. In the course of the meeting, leaders made it clear that despite all of the public talk about how

Republicans were going to handle the state’s redistricting process differently from the Democrats (i.e. in a non-partisan, non-political way) that they had secretly chosen from the beginning to take a route that would avoid oversight by the US Justice Department. Their apparent hope is to cut a few districts that are largely African American, and likely to go Democratic, and make sure that the rest of the districts are likely to swing Republican. Most people guessed that was what they wanted to do, but it was striking and illuminating to learn of the contrast between their public statements and their actual intent.

So why quibble about process, openness and procedure? Because our system depends on citizen involvement and citizen confidence and this kind of dishonesty and lack of openness destroys that.

The Republican leadership obviously had a big agenda this session. Sadly, rebuilding confidence in our government wasn’t on the list. It was just a come-on.

In other words, it is business as usual on Jones Street. Or worse. And why?

When pressed, the chief Republican excuse for their actions is that “the Democrats did the same thing to us.”

This sounds a lot to me like when of my children say “but he hit me first” or “everyone else is doing it.” Those excuses don’t work in my house and they shouldn’t work in the “People’s House.”

Let’s hope North Carolinians continue to voice their displeasure with such behavior until politicians of all parties finally get the message.

Jane Pinsky is the Director of the N.C. Coalition on Lobbying & Government Reform.

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