Thursday, July 27, 2006

The final-days fidgets

Members of the N.C. General Assembly are going through an annual ordeal – the closing days of the legislative session. The 120-member House and 50-member Senate have been in session since May and weeks ago passed a supplemental budget bill – the real reason for convening the so-called “short session” every other year to make budget adjustments. But the frenzied pace of the closing days of any legislative session is a grind. There's a lot of standing around, a lot of brow-knitting and hand-wringing and a whole other world of fidgeting about this and that.
Last-minute legislation that someone just discovered a critical need for, lest the Earth shift on its axis, plus important bills that trudged along in 2005 and much of the short session, all come together to clog the calendar. So it was this year, as lawmakers left to the last few days their final decisions on a proposed Innocence Inquiry Commission, tough new laws on DWI offenses, new sex offender registry rules, long-delayed stormwater runoff rules required by federal law, a controversial moratorium on big landfills in Eastern North Carolina and the biggie – how to revamp ethical standards governing legislators, executive brach officials and legislative lobbyists.
In some harmonious sessions, legislators have tried to wrap up all their business early and leave the final days for long, flowery speeches about the miracle of democracy or the splendor of the Tar Heel state. When former Chief Justice Henry Frye was a legislator two decades ago, he entertained his colleagues with long poems he had written for the occasion.
Some years, when the final hour for adjournment comes, the honorables in the House and Senate open the big brass doors to their chambers so members of the House and Senate can gaze across a central fountain and see one another. They can also see a clerk who will drop a white handkerchief – a visual signal so the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor, who presides in the Senate, can bang the gavel and end the legislative session simultaneously.
Some intramural squabbling in the 1970s and early 1980s disrupted that tradition. And every now and then one chamber or the other gets bent out of shape over something and leaves town before the other chamber is ready. But legislators who have spent a session in Raleigh knocking heads and bargaining with one another and keeping long hours still like to go out of session on that pleasant and non-discordant note. The 2006 short session has been unusually productive, and perhaps the honorables will be in a mood to play drop the hankie again this year.

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