Conventional wisdom about the General Assembly holds that nobody outside of Raleigh pays much attention to how the legislature works, what provision is snuck into what unrelated bill in the middle of the night and what secret clause is hidden in the budget to favor a well-connected special interest.
But that conventional wisdom is increasingly wrong. Just ask local officials in Stokes, Lee, Chatham and Anson Counties who found out recently that the so-called technical corrections bill passed in the waning hours of the legislative session included a provision to prevent local governments from restricting or regulating fracking in their own communities.
Stokes County Commissioners recently approved a three-year moratorium on fracking to allow local officials to make sure land use regulations were in place if fracking ever comes to the county.
Lee County Commissioners are considering a similar moratorium and commissioners in Anson and Chatham counties have also approved fracking restrictions.
All of them are now in danger thanks to a last minute secret addition to legislation that’s generally used to make as a series of noncontroversial or technical changes to bills already passed.
None of the local officials had any idea the provision was in the works. Neither did many legislators who voted for it, including Rep. Bryan Holloway who represents Stokes County.
Holloway, a member of the Republican majority, told the Winston-Salem Journal that he had been assured by House leaders that only technical changes were in the bill and that he would have voted against it if he had known about the provision overriding local fracking regulations.
Holloway was clearly misled by his own House leaders, which is troubling enough.
But if legislators themselves aren’t aware of what they are voting on, how can the media or public have any chance to understand what is at stake in the decisions made in secret?
As the Journal reports, the technical corrections bill was passed by the Senate at 4:06 a.m. Wednesday and the House approved it six minutes later, at 4:12 a.m., with nearly a third of House members not even voting.
The passage of the technical corrections bill with the fracking provision came after another last minute push by Rep. Paul Stam and Sen. Chad Barefoot to take authority from local governments failed because many Democrats and Republicans complained about the nature of the process used to bring it before the House and Senate.
The bill would have stripped local governments of the ability to ban discrimination in housing and employment and raise the local minimum wage.
Those provisions appeared out of nowhere and were attached to a final version of a sex education bill. Barefoot brushed off criticism of the absurd backroom process used to put the proposal together, saying that “the legislature moves the way the legislature moves.”
Stam was similarly defiant, urging his House colleagues to approve the last minute power grab from local government.
But Rep. John Blust, also a member of the Republican majority, spoke forcefully about the problems with the process and ultimately the bill was sent back to a committee where it was defeated primarily because of the questionable process used to advance it.
It was a momentary victory for transparency and democracy but short-lived. Just a few hours later, the House and Senate passed the technical corrections bill that included the provision very few people had seen that restricts the ability of local communities to protect their own land and water.
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann recently told WRAL-TV that he was disappointed that the legislature would tell the folks in his county what’s best for them and their local communities.
Even worse is that lawmakers decided it all in secret, where even most legislators had no idea what was happening.
The legislature may move the way the legislature moves, but it’s supposed to move in the open where the people lawmakers are in Raleigh to represent can see how decisions are made and weigh in with their own ideas.
It’s supposed to be a democracy after all.