Weekly Briefing

More secrecy from the North Carolina House

Special immigration committee won’t give notice of its plans

There’s been a great deal of controversy in recent weeks over the refusal of the state’s conservative legislative leadership to give any prior notice to the public about the agendas for the numerous “special” legislative sessions it’s been holding.

You remember that little incident last month right after the New Year – the one in which lawmakers convened a special session on their own just after midnight to punish the North Carolina Association of Educators after leaders couldn’t muster the votes to repeal the Racial Justice Act?

As a practical matter, it’s become clear that things have pretty much boiled down to this: House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger will take up whatever legislation or issues that suit their fancy whenever they feel like it. If they’ve “got the votes” at any particular moment in time because the right mix of Republicans and Democrats happens to be present in Raleigh (or absent, or sick) they’ll debate and vote on legislation – even if the whole thing goes down in the middle of the night.

And notice? To paraphrase Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “They don’t need no stinking notice!”

Tillis even publicly admitted this rather amazing stance when he told an audience in Asheboro earlier this month: “on any given day when I am in session, I will use any device available to me…to override her (Governor Perdue’s) vetoes.”

For a political leader who ascended to power promising a new level of openness and transparency this is a fairly remarkable (and sobering) public statement.

The next step down the slippery slope

Of course, once political leaders head down such a cynical, ends-justify-the-means path, it’s not hard to start taking other short cuts with the democratic process. If you can call a special legislative session and change a law that impacts thousands of teachers in the middle of the night when the public is sound asleep, any number of other rules related to process that would have once seemed significant may all of a sudden seem a rather quaint.

Consider the matter of public notice when it comes to legislative study committee meetings.

It is a well-established practice in the General Assembly to convene “study committees” in the months between the end of the long session (i.e. Year One of a legislative biennium) and the short session (i.e. Year Two). The idea is that such committees may make recommendations to the short session for the consideration of legislative proposals not discussed during Year One.

This is not an insignificant matter. Ordinarily, bills that haven’t already passed one house during Year One of the biennium (i.e. the Senate or the House of Representatives) are not eligible for consideration during Year Two. A recommendation from a study committee, however, trumps this prohibition and instantly makes a proposal eligible. Study committees, therefore, can amount to more than just an excuse for lobbyists to rack up billable hours and lawmakers to collect a per diem.  Many study committee recommendations actually become law within a matter of weeks or months after they are issued.

This brings us to one of the myriad study committees established by House Republicans last year for the current between-sessions interim – it’s called the House Select Committee on the State’s Role in Immigration Policy.

Not surprisingly, the group includes several xenophobes from the GOP’s anti-immigrant right. The committee’s first meeting took place in December and consisted mostly of the testimony of anti-immigrant Republican sheriffs. Meeting #2 took place at the end of January and consisted of members badgering state agencies to know what each was doing to expedite the deportation of immigrants lacking proper documentation. Neither meeting included any time for immigrant advocates or — God forbid – immigrants themselves to speak.

And meeting # 3? Well, it’s scheduled for this Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. Nice of them to tell us. And the agenda? Well, your guess is as good as ours.

You see, committee chairs, Rep. Frank Iler and Rep. Harry Warren can’t be bothered to tell the public. When immigrant advocates called the committee in an effort to find out what might be up for discussion so that they could try to prepare and maybe even have some information available for the committee members, the media and interested members of the public, they were simply told that the agenda was not available. I got a similar reply when I called the General Assembly yesterday morning just over 48 hours before the meeting’s scheduled start time.

You got that? A duly organized and convened committee of elected state lawmakers is meeting once a month at not insignificant cost to the state to discuss one of the most important and controversial subjects of modern American state and national public policy and its leaders refuse to tell the public even two days ahead of time what’s on the agenda or, indeed, whether it might vote on proposed legislation!

A consistent pattern

So why do they do it? Why do conservative legislative leaders continue to allow and, indeed, encourage this kind of secrecy and lack of transparency?

There are several possible and not necessarily mutually exclusive explanations. They include:

1.      An actual intent to deceive and gain a political advantage;

2.      A cynical intent to further erode trust in and support for government generally; and

3.      Just plain old ineptitude (i.e. not providing advance notice because you have no idea what the heck you’re going to do until the last moment).

All three (and maybe some others) may be true to one degree or another, but none paints a very flattering picture.

The bottom line for now, however, appears to be this: Conservatives running the General Assembly are taking North Carolina’s lawmaking infrastructure down a very dark and troubling path and there are few indications that they feel any shame or even hesitancy about what they are doing.