RALEIGH — Republicans who took over both chambers of the N.C. General Assemblyfor the first time in 140 years have promised an even more open legislative process than what Democrats had developed following a cash-for-vote scandal during the last decade.
Since taking power in late January, GOP leaders have attempted to follow through on that pledge, although N.C. House Republicans took an early hit for allowing private meetings to discuss a controversial issue in what had been called until recently caucus “policy committees.”
They have already changed operating rules for the House and Senate to promote openness. The two chambers have held several hours of public hearings on potential budget cuts and scheduled four hours Tuesday to hear comment on a voter photo identification bill before acting.
A proposed constitutional amendment that would make clear the state policy for meetings to be open and government records public also has received a hearing. The proposal, modeled after a Florida law, wouldn’t allow for additional exceptions for open meeting and public records except when two-thirds of each chamber agrees.
“We’re living up to our commitment to be more transparent,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg. “We can agree to disagree on some of the policy committees, the vast majority of which are open and are about as boring as watching paint dry. But they are for the most part, open.”
The real tests will come on how they debate within the 170-seat chamber how to narrow a $2.4 billion shortfall and complete the once-a-decade remapping of legislative and congressional districts. Will decisions about where to cut or draw be made in public or behind closed doors?
“Time will tell,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “But I certainly appreciate about what they’re saying and hope that they will be true to their word.”
Democrats cleaned up ethics and lobbying laws and improved operating rules at the General Assembly since 2006 in response to state and federal investigations related to passage of the lottery law and how then-House Speaker Jim Black remained co-speaker in 2003. Black, D-Mecklenburg, ultimately entered pleas to bribery and obstruction of justice, as prosecutors presented evidence showing he gave a GOP lawmaker cash and campaign donations to switch political parties.
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, a key negotiator for another ethics and campaign finance reform law passed last year, said Republicans have stumbled at times by refusing to hear some amendments. But he chalks that up to the fact Republicans haven’t had key positions in the chamber in more than a century.
“We’ve been allowed to debate the bills,” Nesbitt said. “I think they’re making a conscious effort to try to do things the right way.”
Early this year, the House decided it would give its members two days to review the final annual budget bill to ensure they understood what was inside. The Senate eliminated a method called “pairing” that allowed lawmakers to avoid voting even when they’re present.
House Republicans took heat from Democrats and outside groups for closing to the public a party caucus meeting held in the Legislative Building in which GOP lawmakers heard from lobbyists about whether the state should make legal again the video poker industry.
While the state Open Meetings Law exempts General Assembly caucus meetings, it also says no member shall participate in a caucus “called for the purpose of evading of subverting” the law. Tillis defended this and other similar meetings going on as informational sessions designed to let lawmakers ask questions in a less-threatening environment. Neither specific legislation was discussed nor votes taken.
Republicans relented partially after it was disclosed that the chairman of the video poker meeting last month had electronic sweepstakes machines in a small grocery store he owned. They announced leaders of the small caucus meetings, now renamed “education groups,” had the discretion to open their meetings to the public and set out conflict-of-interest guidelines.
Jane Pinsky of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform said the new rules make the meetings even more secretive because they allow the presiding officers of the meetings to decide the ground rules. As lawmakers negotiate during dire fiscal circumstances this year, the public has the right to know on what basis lawmakers are making their decisions, she said.
“If it’s an educational meeting, then the members of the public have just as much of a right to be educated as the legislator,” she said. “The budget process needs to be as open as possible.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, whose party caucus doesn’t have similar private educational meetings, said perception is important.
“When the public hears that lobbyists are in closed door meetings with legislators, certain judgments get formed about whether that’s good or bad,” Berger said recently. “Because of that, it’s important that those kinds of meetings be open and accessible.”