RALEIGH — It’s common for the N.C. General Assembly to end legislative sessions amid a flurry of last-minute filings and maneuvering. But power grabs and political shuffling — partisan behaviors — don’t always make for transparency and rational policies, some experts say.
This session has been no exception, with several bills hurriedly filed and revised in June.
Photo identification for voters. A nonpartisan commission to vet judicial nominees. An income tax cap. Harsher punishments for state residents who own and operate illegal gambling machines. These were just a few of the issues kicked around by lawmakers looking to score a final goal before leaving Raleigh.
The N.C. Constitution provides a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But unlike the federal government, the three branches aren’t equal. The legislative branch is dominant. The governor has few powers: the duty to propose a budget — which the General Assembly can ignore. The governor also has veto power, which the legislature can override.
The General Assembly also can create courts, add judges, and confirm or reject appointments by the governor.
Even though the legislative branch is the most powerful of the three, its actions often are rushed and chaotic when the session closes. This year’s short session followed suit.
Several bills proposed constitutional amendments, which would require voter approval in November. Several were filed weeks before lawmakers initially planned to say sine die and adjourn for the year. The session remains alive, however, as lawmakers are scheduled to return in late November.
Some veteran observers question the rush.
Lawmakers usually save the most controversial legislation for last, Leo Daughtry, a Johnston County Republican and former House minority leader, told Carolina Journal.
“The reason [bills] are coming out late is that nobody wanted to bring them out earlier out of fear that if they got too much sunlight they wouldn’t pass,” Daughtry said. “It’s not limited to either party. Whoever’s in charge, it’s always been the case. Put off stuff that you don’t want to deal with.”
Democrats in 2005 manipulated a vote to establish the state’s controversial lottery system. After dismissing the Senate, lawmakers returned to take up the provision when two Republican senators — who opposed the legislation — weren’t available. The bill was approved with then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue’s tie-breaking vote.
Republicans also chafed at budget manipulations taking place when Democrats controlled the General Assembly. Former House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, told CJ that in 2004, Democrats brought a budget conference report to the House floor for an immediate late-night vote. He objected, and then-House Speaker Jim Black allowed less than an hour to review 500 pages of budget documents before voting.
When Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, House leaders enforced the so-called “three-day rule” for revenue bills — legislation involving public spending or state debt. Those bills must be introduced on one day and cannot be approved until they survive two additional votes on different days.
Republican legislators are justified in urging constitutional amendments to protect essential rights, said Bob Rucho, a former Republican senator from Mecklenburg County. Conservatives promised to cut taxes and spending when they won House and Senate majorities in 2010. The push for a constitutionally enforced income tax cap is a way for lawmakers to deliver on some of those promises before November elections, he said.
House Bill 1092, “Require Photo ID to Vote,” is a workaround, Daughtry said, since the General Assembly failed to defend its controversial voter I.D. law before a federal court. Courts can’t touch the law if voters approve adding it to the state constitution.
Some of the amendments may look OK to voters, but many come with fine print, says Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.
Senate Bill 814, “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment,” would establish a nonpartisan commission to evaluate judicial nominees. But the bill also stipulates the governor could choose only from candidates recommended by the legislature. If the governor fails to make an appointment within 10 days, the choice would be left to the General Assembly.
House Bill 913, “Bipartisan Elections and Enforcement,” would give the legislature control of the “powers, duties, responsibilities, appointments, and terms of office of any board or commission prescribed by general law.”
These are “power grabs,” and Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty of jostling for political advantages, Bitzer said. But the current majority is “taking it from legislative supremacy to legislative domination.”
Accountability weakens when the legislature bolsters its power using the constitution.
“Government transparency and openness is a hallmark of our democratic system of government. This is not to say Democrats didn’t pull shenanigans, but it is an unfortunate byproduct of majority control, and when you have supermajority control, it tends to weaken transparency at times.”
Come November, partisan politics will likely influence voters’ decision to adopt these amendments, Bitzer said.
Laws should be crafted carefully, with great reason and discussion, Daughtry said, but politics often kicks that ideal aside — and this time around is no different.
“Right now, it’s not persuasion at all. It’s like cramming something down. It has nothing to do with persuasion. It has more to do with power. … I hope people can persuade each other to take positions based on logic — and what’s good for the state.”