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Four ways to make legislature more transparent

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Imagine you've just found out about a piece of state legislation that will affect your life. Maybe it's a new regulation for your business. Maybe it's a change in the tax code, or something that affects your personal liberties.

You're ready to head to the legislature to speak your mind, so you keep a close eye on the House and Senate calendars. If you're lucky, you'll have a couple days' advance notice. But you might only have a few hours' warning to drop everything and rush to the Legislative Building.

If you make it there in time, you might still be barred from entering the small committee room because it's already at capacity. If that happens and it's a room without an audio stream, you won't be able to hear the proceedings. And there's no guarantee your issue will be considered — the bill might turn into something else entirely, without any warning.

Welcome to the General Assembly, the least transparent government body in North Carolina. The rules that ensure public input at your local city and county governments don't apply here. On Jones Street, it's nearly impossible to navigate the labyrinthine halls of power without a professional lobbyist to guide the way and grease the wheels.

You might blame the Republicans currently in power, but it's always been this way. A part-time legislature strives for speed and efficiency, and good government concepts such as "advance notice" and "public hearings" are often just too much trouble when you're eager to finish up and leave town.

But here are a few simple, inexpensive steps lawmakers could take to improve transparency and make it easy for the average citizen to get involved:

■ Video and audio technology: While many city councils stream video of their meetings online — sometimes with an app for residents watching at home to submit comments — the legislature barely offers an audio stream. Legislative leaders often like to schedule their meetings in the rooms without audio technology, particularly for contentious issues.

There's no excuse for this in 2018. The last few budget cycles have included millions in grants to towns and nonprofits that didn't even apply for money, so lawmakers could easily afford to wire each room for video or at least audio. Doing so would allow people from Murphy to Manteo to participate in the process from the comforts of home.

■ Advance notice: Every committee meeting and House and Senate session should have an agenda made public at least 24 hours in advance. This year's meetings sometimes had as little as 30 minutes' notice. The change might mean legislative sessions last longer, but I've watched far too many votes in which legislators complain that they haven't even had time to read the bill.

■ Adjourn by 9 p.m.: The legislature routinely hold votes well into the night, and I've witnessed sessions that lasted until 3 or 4 a.m. Most of us don't make great decisions in the middle of the night — that's why it's a busy time for emergency rooms and jails — and our elected leaders don't either. Both Republicans and Democrats have a history of sneaky shenanigans in midnight sessions, and sometimes they change their minds after a little sunlight.

■ Ban "gut and amend" legislation: This is the shameful technique where legislators schedule a vote on a bill, and then delete the entire bill and replace it with something unrelated — often a proposal that hasn't been made public before the meeting began.

It's intended to speed up the process, but it's typically used when lawmakers want to limit public scrutiny. It's how a motorcycle safety bill suddenly becomes new abortion restrictions. That practice should end: If a legislator files a bill about motorcycle safety, it can be tweaked and improved in the legislative process, but the subject should remain motorcycle safety.

If legislative leaders fixed their shoddy process, perhaps the capital press corps would be able to retire our "FUBAR meter" that measures the level of insanity at the General Assembly.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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