Secrecy of special sessions subverts democracy
By Chris Fitzsimon
Thursday, August 10, 2017
The General Assembly will convene a special session next week but most people in North Carolina, including the vast majority of the members of House and Senate, have no idea what legislation they will consider while they are in town.
Last week lawmakers met in a one-day special session supposedly to consider overriding a series of vetoes by Governor Roy Cooper. That was the stated purpose anyway.
But a number of lawmakers didn’t make the session so votes on the vetoes were delayed and instead the House and Senate considered a series of bills, including one that would make it far more difficult to enact new environmental or workplace safety regulations no matter how desperately they are needed.
That highly controversial bill could affect the safety of every community in North Carolina but virtually no one knew it was coming. It was not listed on the House or Senate calendars for the day.
No committee meetings were held to discuss it or another anti-environment bill making the rounds in the corner offices of the Legislative Building, out of public view. The legislation just popped up that morning as a new version of a conference report.
The Senate passed it but the House balked at the last minute so the dangerous bill remains in limbo. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger says it is still alive, which means it could come up at any time with no notice, no chance for people affected by the handcuffs on environmental protections to have their say.
Berger defended the anti-regulatory bill by saying that “…folks who are elected are the ones who have the authority to impose on citizens things that cost money.”
It apparently has not occurred to Berger that folks who are elected also have an obligation to let the people who elected them know what they are doing in Raleigh.
The legislative process is now officially a bad joke. House and Senate leaders hold sessions whenever they want, consider whatever they want, ignore their own rules whenever they want and don’t care that the public and most rank and file legislators have no idea what is happening.
And maybe saddest of all is that the media for the most part, no longer covers this outrageous behavior as part of the story.
Berger had lots to say about why his anti-environmental protections scheme was a good idea but was not pressed on how it came before the special session in the first place and why the people had no notice, including folks in southeastern North Carolina now struggling with the new chemical GenX polluting their water.
The executive editor of Raleigh’s biggest newspaper wrote this week that the paper would no longer be covering the “obligatory stories about government process,” calling them spinach that readers simply are not interested in.
It’s probably a safe bet that families living along the Cape Fear River are fairly interested that legislative leaders don’t want them to know they might consider legislation that prevents state environmental officials from protecting their water.
The process of government is government, and how people are allowed or denied the chance to speak and affect the decisions their elected officials make on their behalf is the essence of democracy.
It doesn’t work if people don’t know what is happening, if they don’t understand the “process” and how they can affect it to make sure their voices are heard. Otherwise, the people are subjects to be ruled over, not participants in their own self-government.
And that is where we are headed, as the next series of special sessions are approaching in Raleigh, in which lawmakers will be making decisions that dramatically affect the lives of ten million people.
The least they could do is announce what they will be discussing and stick to it. And the least the members of the media can do is ask them why they won’t tell us.
Spinach or not, we deserve to know.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.