Fitzsimon File

Situational and selective open government

FF-3072013

House Speaker Thom Tillis and his top lieutenants held a news conference this week to announce that a voter ID bill would be crafted deliberately with public hearings and input from outside groups and then discussed in a series of committee meetings, not just unveiled and voted on in the same hour.

That’s puzzling for a couple of reasons. Shouldn’t every important piece of legislation be handled that way, with input from experts outside the legislative building and the chance for people actually affected by a proposal given the chance to address the lawmakers who are supposed to be representing them?

Tillis apparently thinks it is newsworthy to announce that the House will have an open process to develop key legislation. And under his leadership, especially this year, it is.

In the last few weeks, the House and Senate have both approved a complicated bill that would refuse Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and thereby deny health care to 500,000 people and cost hospitals in North Carolina more than $12 billion in revenues.

Surely that deserved more than the rushed committee meetings held to discuss it in the House and Senate. If Tillis thinks it is a good idea for lawmakers to hear from interested groups about voter ID, why for example weren’t experts with the Institute of Medicine invited to talk about the group’s study showing how Medicaid expansion would create thousands of jobs?

Why were no rural hospital administrators given the chance to talk in public to committees about how the Affordable Care Act would help them by reducing the number of people showing up at their emergency rooms with no health coverage and no ability to pay for their care?

The House and Senate also approved a massive rewrite of the state’s unemployment insurance system that slashes benefits to workers and denies federal emergency help to 170,000 people who were laid off from their jobs through no fault of their own.

A few advocates for workers did get a minute each at a committee meeting to explain their concerns about a bill that was written in secret with business lobbyists, but that hardly meets the test of meaningful input.

Only now is Tillis willing to slow the legislative process down, for voter ID legislation. You don’t have to be much of a cynic to think it’s because Tillis is reading the polls and believes that the majority of voters support a voter ID law.

There’s no need for more restrictions on voting of course. There’s no evidence of any significant voter impersonation fraud. All the law will do is make it harder for thousands of people to vote, especially seniors and people with a disability who are less likely to have a current government issued photo ID.

But Tillis knows the public is generally supportive so he is willing to stand up for an open transparent legislative process (And let’s hope lawmakers are educated about the hardship a strict photo ID requirement will pose for many voters).

Tillis didn’t hold a news conference and lay out such a deliberative process before slashing unemployment benefits or denying health care to 500,000 people.

That brings us to Governor Pat McCrory who travelled to Randolph County a couple of weeks ago to hold a public ceremony and media event to sign a bill about vocational education.

Wednesday McCrory signed the bill to deny Medicaid expansion but neither the public nor the media were invited. It was a private ceremony held late in the afternoon followed by a brief announcement from McCrory’s press office that he had signed the legislation.

McCrory signed the bill slashing unemployment benefits the same way, in private with no members of the media there to report it or ask questions.

Our current state leaders apparently have interesting criteria for open and transparent government. They only want to do things in the sunshine that they believe are reasonably popular.

Other proposals, like slashing worker benefits and denying health care, they’d rather handle those in private or with as little scrutiny as possible.

Tillis and McCrory are missing something important here. If they don’t want to sign a bill in public or listen to experts who might disagree with them, maybe they shouldn’t be signing or passing the bills in the first place.

We need and deserve open, transparent government all the time, not just when politicians believe it is in their own best interests.