The wrong lesson from the summer

The wrong lesson from the summer

- in Fitzsimon File

The reviews and recaps of the legislative session continue, now understandably intertwined with the confession last week by former Representative Michael Decker that he accepted $50,000 to support House Speaker Jim Black in his bid for re-election in 2003.

Politicians, pundits, and editorial writers are all finding lessons in Decker’s guilty plea and the lobbying and ethics reforms passed by the General Assembly the last week of the session.

That’s not surprising, but some of the conclusions are not only off base, the recommendations made with them would take the state in exactly the wrong direction in response to the scandals now preoccupying Raleigh’s Inside the Beltline world.

The Winston-Salem Journal thinks that the 2006 session makes the case for limiting the length of legislative sessions. Legislation to limit sessions either by law or constitutional amendment has been filed every session in recent memory but has never come close to passing.

The Journal’s editorial board says session limits would save taxpayers money, make life easier for legislators and “lead to better governance.”  Not sure why limiting how long lawmakers are in Raleigh will make their decisions better, but the whole notion is based on the myth that North Carolina still has a “citizen legislature,” in which average people are able to serve.

That is absurd and limiting the session to four or five months one year and three months the next won’t help much. Not many working class people have jobs they can leave for months on end and as a result the General Assembly is primarily made up of wealthy businesspeople, retirees, or lawyers from big enough firms that they can be in Raleigh for weeks on end.

Ironically, session limits would do nothing to make it easier for average people to serve, but would give lobbyists and legislative staff members more power over policy decisions. The less time lawmakers have to spend on complicated issues, the worse for all of us.

States with strict limits on legislative sessions have many more special sessions to deal with pressing issues.  Special sessions usually only last a day or two and are well choreographed in advance by legislative leaders, many times in consultation with powerful lobbyists, leaving little chance for public input or open debate.

The time may have come in North Carolina for what many people refuse to consider, a permanent, full-time General Assembly with reasonable pay so people can afford to serve. We should judge the General Assembly on what they accomplish, not how long it takes them.

Lawmakers consider 2,500 bills. The state has a $19 billion budget.  Conservatives always clamor for zero-based budgeting, in which every program is zeroed out every year and has to make its case for funding in legislative hearings. That seems hard to imagine unless lawmakers spent far more time in session.

The Journal editorial page believes that lawmakers can get their work done faster next year since they won’t be as free to accept dinner and entertainment from lobbyists. The truth is that the lobbying reform bill has enough loopholes to let the wining and dining continue. 

The bottom line is that we need more debate on important issues facing the state, not less. And we need to make it possible for more people to serve. The worst thing to do would be to put strict limits on legislative sessions to make life easier for the lawmakers currently in office and give even more power to lobbyists. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.

About the author

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.
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