The bustling backrooms at the undemocratic General Assembly

The bustling backrooms at the undemocratic General Assembly

- in Fitzsimon File


The word in Raleigh these days is that the Senate budget proposal is almost done. That means the decisions about how to spend $21 billion of your money have apparently been made.

The size of the raise for  teachers and state employees,  the number of kids be able to enroll in NC PreK, how much more universities will be cut—all those decisions are finished in the Senate.

But you didn’t miss the open committee meetings, the public testimony from people affected by the budget decisions, the school superintendents asking for more funding for textbooks, community college presidents asking for salary increases for their shamefully underpaid faculty, the mental health advocates making their case for more funding for vital services.

And unless you live in a district represented by a handful of the most powerful legislators, the folks who represent you in the Senate didn’t miss the public meetings either.

They were never held.

The Senate budget that is apparently almost finished was put together by Senate leaders in closed meetings in backrooms and corner offices.  It’s likely to be unveiled and passed next week according to staff members at the General Assembly, a schedule confirmed by House Speaker Thom Tillis in remarks to a business group this week.

And unveiled is the only way to describe it. There might be a committee meeting or two next week for show, but the Senate budget was written by a handful of leaders in secret, away from the media and the public and even other Senators who aren’t powerful enough to warrant admission into the inner budget-writing sanctum.

The budget will be handed down and handed out in public next week, not put together in meetings open to everyone.

Transparency was a campaign promise of Republicans a few years ago when they were trying to take over control of the General Assembly. They railed against the Democratic majority for limiting access to the budget process, for rushed meetings and backroom deals.

They may have overstated the problem, but they had a point.  The Democratic majority, particularly in the Senate, often spent too much time in closed corner offices putting the budget together and not enough time working in open, announced, and accessible meetings.

The Republican complaints now seem like they were made long ago. Their promises to be more transparent turned out to be hollow ones.

And it’s not just true with the budget.  Senate leaders recently unveiled a complicated 60-page regulatory reform bill in a committee meeting with no notice the bill was coming. Senator Andrew Brock seemed to bristle at the suggestion that unannounced debate was a problem, asking one reporter if she asked that same question when Democrats were in control.

This legislative session is starting with a flurry of undemocratic procedures that make it next to impossible for the public and the media and even many legislators to keep up with what is happening.  Bills are stripped and unrelated subjects are inserted. That gets around the rule that only bills that passed one chamber or another are eligible for consideration this summer.

Part of the rule-bending might stem from the push to end the short session as quickly as possible to allow House Speaker Thom Tillis to get back on the campaign trail in his bid to unseat U.S. Senator Kay Hagan.

Part of it is also that the Republicans now in control of the General Assembly have the votes to do what they please and are impatient to exercise that power, never mind the democratic process.  Last year, legislative leaders famously added new abortion restrictions to a motorcycle safety bill.

There’s something else different now too. Groups on the right and left both complained when the Democrats ran the General Assembly in a less than transparent way and both sides demanded a more open process.

Now only the groups on the left are complaining. The folks on the right are defending the secret budget cabal and the unannounced meetings they used to condemn. Apparently their ideological glee has overcome their devotion to democracy.

Maybe the secret budget process doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all just political jargon and inside baseball. After all, it’s only $21 billion of public money they are allocating, only decisions about schools and health care and environmental protections they are making.

Why should the people have any chance to see what is happening or have any chance to comment along the way?

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.