Regarding the state of affairs within the N.C. General Assembly these days, one little set of numbers tells a big story: 112-0.
That was the margin by which the House on June 23 rejected the Senate’s version of the annual budget bill. No, not exactly a cliff-hanger.
House members – majority Republicans as well as minority Democrats – not only disagreed with the Senate’s more conservative spending approach. They also resented Senate tactics that some would surely have described as bullying and an abuse of the legislative process. Unfortunately, that pattern has become familiar, with troubling results.
Consider what happened with the budget bill, which originated as House Bill 97. Envisioning a 5 percent growth in spending, in line with an improved revenue picture and a host of deferred needs, the bill drew solid support from both parties when the House approved it on May 22 by a vote of 93-23.
The Senate’s Republican leaders had different ideas – a bunch of ’em. Their rewrite of the bill pruned the spending increase to a cautious 2 percent, making it that much harder to reward veteran teachers with pay increases and to address other pent-up concerns. But beyond that, they larded the bill with policy changes. From 329 pages, it ballooned to 508.
House members’ collective response amounted to “No way!” Their 112-0 vote not to concur with the Senate’s rough treatment of their bill means that a conference committee will have to resolve the many glaring differences between the two chambers – and do it amidst a climate that can hardly be called collegial. Don’t expect the legislative session that began in January to be winding up any time soon.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with House-Senate disagreements. After all, the idea behind a bicameral legislature is that the two bodies can bring different perspectives to an issue and that debate is healthy.
Yet when major disagreements go to conference, the process can be distorted. Conference committees meet in private, so members of the public can’t directly monitor the give-and-take and the inevitable deal-cutting.
Sometimes conferees come up with entirely new provisions. Then, when they finally agree on a compromise, legislative rules allow no further amendments. Each chamber votes the conference report either up or down. It’s a formula that easily can result in passage of provisions that wouldn’t have stood a chance on their own.
Governor gets crosswise
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has tended to side with the House when the two chambers have been split, and he has signaled his support for the House’s budget approach. The Senate, for its part, doesn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention to what the governor wants.
Republican senators recently led the way in overriding two of McCrory’s high-profile vetoes, one that would have affirmed magistrates’ duties to perform all legal marriages and the other upholding protections for corporate whistleblowers. Now the governor could wind up with a take-it-or-leave-it decision on a budget bill that he’s already criticized for delving into policy changes. Party ties notwithstanding, the Senate isn’t likely to feel sorry for him.
McCrory also complained loudly about a Senate maneuver that redrew Greensboro’s municipal election districts in ways that Democrats and African-Americans say undermine black voting strength. Because that was a local bill, he couldn’t veto it – but he said that if he coulda, he woulda. That the bill got past the House was another win for the Senate’s brand of hardball.
Greensboro Republican Sen. Trudy Wade’s S.B. 36 cleared her chamber in March but was going nowhere in the House. So, the guts of that Greensboro bill were transplanted into H.B. 263, another election-related measure that the House had sent over. The Senate approved the bill on June 11 by a 31-16 party-line vote.
That got the House’s attention. On June 29, by a vote of 35-73, it refused to concur with the Senate’s changes. Then on July 2, it rejected a conference committee’s compromise – one that still contained the disputed revamp of Greensboro’s City Council elections. The vote this time was 50-53.
That’s when Republican House leaders evidently decided they couldn’t afford to disappoint their Senate colleagues. After a closed-door caucus and no doubt some strenuous persuasion, they put the conference report up for another vote. Enough Republicans now saw the wisdom in doing the Senate’s bidding for the measure to be enacted into law by a 57-46 margin. After all, if they didn’t go along, their bills pending in the Senate could be ticketed for the graveyard.
Loads of ‘reforms’
In the hectic rush of business as legislators prepared for a two-week post-July 4 vacation, another Senate initiative also took presumptuousness to a high level.
Under conservative Republican control, both chambers have enacted various regulatory “reforms” meant to ease burdens on business. Critics have ripped many of those reforms for disrupting the balance between economic growth and environmental protection. That criticism has been persuasive enough to stall some reform proposals.
But Republican senators don’t give up easily, as shown by what they did with House Bill 765. When it came over from the House in April, by a vote of 115-1, this was a one-page bill clarifying load-covering rules for trucks hauling gravel, sand and so forth. When the Senate got done with it, the bill stood at 58 pages and included a dog’s breakfast of regulatory and administrative changes that hadn’t otherwise gotten over the bar. For instance:
- Coastal stormwater runoff rules would be loosened.
- The number of air quality monitoring stations would be reduced.
- No “mitigation” would be required when intermittent streams were lost to development.
- Protections for isolated wetlands west of I-95 would apply to wetlands larger than one acre, up from one-third of an acre.
- Requirements that promote recycling of discarded TVs and computers would be scrapped.
- Organizations that challenged the state’s granting of environmental permits would risk having to pay the other side’s attorneys’ fees if they lost.
- The rule limiting a heavy-duty vehicle to five consecutive minutes of idling every hour would be repealed.
- Pigeons could be hunted as wild birds.
And the kitchen sink?
The Senate’s Rule 54.1 states, “The title of each bill shall adequately and fairly reflect its subject matter.” Hence, we have the title of the rejiggered H.B. 765: “An act to provide further regulatory relief to the citizens of North Carolina by providing for various administrative reforms, by eliminating certain unnecessary or outdated statutes and regulations and modernizing or simplifying cumbersome or outdated regulations, and by making various other statutory changes.”
Perhaps that could have been simplified to say, “An act that fixes everything we Republicans believe needs fixing.”
Under Rule 57.1, amendments or committee substitutes are supposed to be germane to the original bill. In committee, whether changes are germane falls to the chair to decide. Let’s just say that compliance with the rule is haphazard at best. (Remember that sand blowing out of the improperly covered dump truck?)
What we’re left with is a legislative process that can be twisted and turned for whatever partisan or ideological advantage suits the folks who have control of the levers.
This kind of manipulation concerns the Council of Churches as violating basic principles of good government. It becomes even more of a concern when it yields bills that skew the state budget to the disadvantage of ordinary citizens, that interfere with fair rules for municipal elections and that cater to businesses at the expense of the environment – which, after all, we are charged as stewards with protecting.
The Senate’s conservative chiefs may think they have the power and force of will to have their way. Perhaps they do. But they should reckon with the views of many North Carolinians who think the state’s best interests are served through open, honest debate and a decent regard for the well-being of the powerless.