Weekly Briefing

Is this Raleigh or Washington?

The North Carolina General Assembly becomes a darker, meaner and nastier place

When I started as a lobbyist for low income Legal Aid clients in the North Carolina General Assembly during the “short session” of 1992, it was not an overly friendly place for me or my clients. At the first committee meeting I attended – it was an introductory gathering of what was then called the Senate Banking Committee – virtually every member of the Committee from both parties went out of their way to explain his or her connection to the banking industry. Some served on bank boards, some were retired industry employees and some were even current employees.

Needless to say, it was not a terribly encouraging first experience for a new lobbyist with the charge of battling lenders on behalf of poor consumers. Subsequent meetings in the weeks and months that followed confirmed the legislature’s broadly pro-business slant. My adversaries had access and influence that I and my clients did not, and could not hope, to enjoy.

And yet, now as I look back on that era with the perspective provided by two decades in Raleigh and compare it with the General Assembly of 2012, I am struck by how much further things have tilted in the direction of corporations, the powerful, and the wealthy. What was then, by any fair assessment, a very conservative body dominated by older men from the rural south, has now become a downright reactionary place.

And what’s more, things have become a whole lot, for lack of a better word, meaner.

This is not to imply in any way that politics in 1992 Raleigh were a pillow fight. Battles then were fierce and could get ugly at times. Though rarely captured by recording devices, ignorant and hateful things did find their way into debate.

But today, it’s strikingly different. With the rise of a vocal, well-funded and hyper-partisan wing of the Republican Party, things have started to feel more and more like the U.S. Congress; it’s as if Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist were literally making the day-to-day decisions about the bills that will be heard, the committees that will meet and even the people who will be allowed to speak or enter the Legislative Building.

The list of illustrative events and decisions from the current General Assembly is long – here are just a few:

The contempt for process and transparency

Despite rising to power on a platform of combating corruption and promoting openness in government, the conservative leadership at the General Assembly has, in fact, taken the direct opposite path. From almost Day One last winter, secrecy, limited debate, closed door meetings and ends-justify-the-means processes (or lack thereof) have been the dominant themes.

Just this week, leaders of the state Senate made the rather remarkable announcement that they would move to pass the 2013 state budget without even bothering to hold Appropriations subcommittee meetings! Instead, the Senate version of this huge, complex and critically important new law is simply being put together behind closed doors by a trio of powerful GOP members. It will then be unveiled in a full Appropriations Committee meeting – a venue in which, unlike subcommittees, thoughtful and detail-oriented discussion and amendments are almost literally impossible – and then rushed right to the Senate floor.

This may seem like inside baseball, but it is actually a remarkable bit of nose-thumbing at established democratic processes. Sure, powerful insiders have often made important budget decisions behind closed doors, but the blatant secrecy of the current legislative leadership makes those past episodes look positively genteel by comparison. At least in the past, budget-makers would go through some semblance of “the motions” and allow rank and file members (and even citizens) to be heard. Now, Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Berger and their lieutenants don’t even pretend.

But this is just one large and important example. There are numerous others:

Each of these events has revealed a cynical, unapologetic and take-no-prisoners attitude towards governing that simply makes past legislatures look downright wimpy.

The legislature itself

But it’s not just the way the legislative processes are being managed; it’s the feel of the place itself. What once was a mostly friendly and congenial place – a set of buildings in which even adversaries could be cordial and find some common interests in governing and in which all visitors were welcomed – is now a divided, suspicious and less polite venue. Law enforcement officers patrol the hallways casting a suspicious eye on every group of more than handful of people. Access to hallways and committee meetings is much more tightly regulated and even the sergeants-at-arms patrols (groups of mostly retired men and women who once greeted all visitors with a smile and a pat on the back) seem grumpy and short-fused.

A classic example of the new and harder General Assembly in action was the ridiculous (and selective) decision made by Tillis’ office a couple of months ago to eject a group of silent protesters from the Legislative Building’s second floor – a place that the public had long visited without interference.

Another occurred just yesterday. It took place when senators moved a committee meeting on controversial legislation to legalize “fracking” from the legislature’s largest committee room – a place that would have been able to accommodate a sizable chunk of the hundreds of citizens who’s come to voice their opposition to the bill – to a small room at the last minute. Rather than trying to accommodate visitors, lawmakers locked them out and sent police officers to watch them as they milled about outside the committee room.

While relatively small and perhaps even explainable decisions in isolation, in the context of so many other steps to limit debate and reduce public access and input, it’s hard not to see these actions in a more sinister light.

Making sense of the change 

So, how does one explain this shift on Jones Street? Why would a group with such huge and comfortable majorities feel compelled to behave in such a consistently heavy-handed way?

A charitable observer might attribute it to inexperience. But if this is the explanation, why do we see the same kind of change in Washington – a place in which conservatives have been in and out of power for decades?

Sadly, a more plausible explanation is this: The change in the General Assembly is ultimately about a group of political leaders who are hostile, insecure and bent upon pushing through a radical anti-government agenda as fast as possible. It is a political movement that worships the imperial CEO and holds little patience for the messy machinations of democratic lawmaking. Put simply, these people do not believe in public systems and structures in the traditional sense and that hostility to all things “public” carries over to the very place in which laws are made

It is one of the great risks of our current political environment that these changes will be very hard to eradicate in the future – no matter which party runs state government.