Doubling down on secrecy: The legislature’s latest assaults on transparency

Doubling down on secrecy: The legislature’s latest assaults on transparency

If there’s a single most maddening and telling hallmark of the hard Right leadership that’s dominated the North Carolina General Assembly over the past eight years, it has to be its failure to live up to its members’ past promises to champion open and transparent government.

It’s difficult to remember now, but when Republicans took the reins of power back in 2011, they rode in on a platform that promised a new era of openness in government. Whether they were highlighting the corruption of former House Speaker Jim Black, the top-heavy control of the Senate by longtime Democratic leader Marc Basnight, or the numerous ethical foibles that plagued the administration of former Gov. Mike Easley, Republican leaders promised a new, cleaner and more transparent government.

Never mind that the man who followed Black, Democratic Speaker Joe Hackney had already declared war on corruption and implemented far-reaching reforms or that Basnight was retiring or that Easley was already out of office. According to GOP lawmakers at that time, Raleigh was awash in dirty backroom politics that they would cheerfully and energetically disinfect. Senate Republican leader Phil Berger had even gone so far as to repeatedly sponsor a bill that would have ended partisan gerrymandering by instituting a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

As has been documented in the years since, however, most of those promises of reform have been ignored or affirmatively broken. Rather than disinfecting the legislative branch, conservative leaders have doubled down on secrecy, obfuscation, abuse of process, and limitations on debate.

From hastily-called late night “special” sessions, to the disastrous backroom deal that produced HB 2, to last year’s remarkable decision to pass a state budget without allowing an opportunity for the proposal and consideration of amendments, the pattern continues.

Oh, and partisan gerrymandering? Not much progress there yet either.

And for those who thought last November’s election shift might inspire the turning over of a new leaf, two recent developments have quickly burst that bubble.

The first involves a new and almost unreported law.

It’s already been well-documented how GOP leaders inserted language into a mostly non-controversial bill last month that will make election law investigations secret and then made it law over Gov. Cooper’s veto. But it now turns out that there was another pro-secrecy provision inserted late in the process into the same bill that has received virtually zero news coverage.

That provision (buried in obscure language on page 7) repeals a 12-year-old law passed in the aftermath of the Jim Black scandal that had required public reporting by nonprofits which spend at least $3,000 in any 90-day period on the “solicitation of others” to engage in grassroots advocacy. Like required reporting by lobbyists and the people that hire them, the solicitation reporting requirement provided an important window on the groups and individuals who are trying to influence public policy in our state.

Unfortunately, not only is the law now history, we don’t even know who made the repeal happen or why. Good government advocates, including veteran North Carolina Center for Nonprofits Vice President David Heinen (who sounded an alarm bell regarding the move in a recent mailing to the state’s nonprofit community) and North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform director Jane Pinsky (who decried the move to repeal the law which she said kept a check on efforts by “people with money” to “manipulate” state government) both follow such proposals closely at the General Assembly, but neither was able in this case to even determine who inserted the provision. (Disclosure: the North Carolina Justice Center, parent organization of NC Policy Watch, is a member of both groups.)

Not surprisingly, no one has come forward to claim “credit,” though it’s hard to imagine that the powerful sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Lewis, the longtime chair of both the House Rules and Elections committees, didn’t play a role.

The second recent assault on open government on Jones Street involves the move by legislative leaders and the man they employ to run the Legislative Building, former ultra-conservative politician, Paul Coble, to evict the Capital Press Corps from the centrally-located space its members have occupied for decades. As McClatchy journalist Colin Campbell observed in a recent column, Coble’s move to uproot and relocate reporters to a smaller, out-of-the-way basement room sends an obvious message in this era of anti-media rhetoric.

And that message sure isn’t “Good luck and best wishes on keeping close tabs of what goes on in ‘the People’s House.’” As Campbell noted, the message to the public is more like: “We’re Important Politicians, and this is our house. You can come visit, but only if you keep quiet and stay out of our way.”

The bottom line: It’s quite possible to imagine a scenario in which North Carolina’s elected leaders disagree vehemently on many critical issues of state policy, but find common ground on the vital importance of supporting open and honest debate to settle their differences. Many liberal and conservative advocates and commentators actually agree on this premise.

Unfortunately, for the past eight years, Republican lawmakers have hypocritically rejected this idea and, from the look of things, plan to remain on the same flawed path going forward.