The Follies (of the end of the General Assembly session)

By: - July 8, 2016 12:01 pm

That's-not-all-2The General Assembly session may be over but the troubling news about what legislative leaders did while they were in Raleigh is still coming out. This week we learned that legislative leaders changed election laws to make sure that the name of Phil Berger Jr. would appear first on the ballot in his bid for a seat on the Court of Appeals against incumbent Judge Linda Stephens.

As the News & Observer reported, being listed first on the ballot can give a candidate a slight advantage, especially in lesser known statewide races.

Phil Berger Jr. of course is the son of Senate President Phil Berger.  But that’s probably just a coincidence, that legislation was changed in the waning days of the session to help the campaign of the son of the most powerful member of the Senate.

Coincidence must have also played a role in what we have learned about the details about the final budget agreement reached the last week lawmakers were in town.

The News & Observer reports that late news of an additional $62 million revenue surplus prompted House and Senate leaders to split the money and use it to fund specific requests from legislators—some legislators anyway.

The biggest share of the funding went to projects in the district of Senate budget chair Harry Brown, who is also the majority leader.  The budget spends $3 million for school construction in Jones County which Brown represents.

Last year the budget allocated $11 million to the same county to build schools and no doubt the county needs the help.  Lots of low-income counties do but they are not represented by the Senator in charge of the budget process.

Brown also directed money to a technical education center in his district and a Marine memorial, again worthwhile projects but a lot of other projects around the state are worthwhile too.

And it wasn’t just the Senate. House leaders played the pork barrel game too, for example directing a million dollars to a museum in Winston-Salem in the district of key House budget writer Donny Lambeth.

Maybe most interestingly, House and Senate leaders were unapologetic about dividing up $62 million in private and rewarding key lawmakers.

Brown told the N&O that most of the budget was already settled when they realized there was an additional surplus so they just split it between the chambers with the budget writers deciding in secret on how it would be spent.

It’s a practice that Republicans and the advocacy groups that support them railed against when the Democrats controlled the General Assembly.  Apparently pork barrel spending is less offensive now that the GOP is in charge.

In many ways the news of the troubling back rooms deals is the prefect epilogue for a legislative session that ended with a flurry of last minute shady maneuvers, some of which the House and Senate approved and some that House members rejected, like the heavy-handed bid by Senate Rules Chair Tom Apodaca to change the way the Asheville City Council was elected.

The defeat of Apodaca’s plan was notable for two reasons.  An unusual coalition of Democrats and Republicans, upset at the way Apodaca flaunted the rules to try to impose his will on Asheville, stood up and rejected his bully tactics.

The episode made headlines with some observers proclaiming that it was a victory for democracy and the integrity of the legislative process.

But the same members of the majority party routinely passed legislation this session that was fashioned in an equally questionable way, in secret, with the contents of a bill stripped out in a committee and replaced with controversial provisions with no notice, provisions that most legislators had never seen until they were asked to vote on them.

That’s always happened at the General Assembly, especially at the end of a legislative session. But it used to be the troubling exception. This year it almost became the rule.

It is hard enough for the public to keep up with what the people who are supposed to be representing them are doing when the rules are followed, when there is some rhyme or reason to the way the General Assembly works.

It’s virtually impossible now—and some legislative leaders appear to like it that way.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066