Friday, February 02, 2007

Legislature's 'special provisions' debate

Editorial writers and columnists have been calling for procedural reforms ever since the Jim Black fiasco began blowing up in the state House a couple of years ago.
Ironically, then-Speaker Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who were responsible for many of the practices that kept the public from fully knowing what was going on in Raleigh and limited the opportunity for minority-party legislators to get their ideas heard in earlier sessions, made some good changes in the 2005 short session.
With the election of Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat last week, the prospect has brightened for more procedural reforms. Hackney mentioned several in his opening day statement, including giving legislators more time to study legislation before voting, keeping so-called special provisions out of budget bills and assuring fair debate.
So far Hackney has gotten most of the credit for a willingness to embrace procedural reforms, but Amy Fulk, top aide to Basnight, noted that Basnight has embraced reforms. The Senate has GOP committee chairs, does not use “floaters” as extra members of committees to insure the leadership’s will gets done, and it opened up the budget conference meetings to the public last year. Basnight has also asked that members file bills on any funding item they requested to improve openness in the budget process, and will put limits on the use of blank bills this year as place-holders for unforseen legislation someone might want to introduce after bill deadlines.
But no one should look for Basnight to fully embrace the call to restrict special provisions in budget bills – provisions that change substantive law. In a pre-session interview with reporters, she noted, Basnight talked about several good programs that wouldn’t have made it on their own: the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Smart Start originated as special provisions, she said.
Both those items got some public debate – a lot of public debate in the case of Smart Start – prior to their inclusion in the budget. That’s the point – not that special provisions are bad; but special provisions that change substantive law and that don’t get debate, either, are legislative nightmares. Those undebated special provisions – the substantive law changes that even some veteran legislators don’t realize are in budget bills – ought to be prohibited.
Fulk said Basnight believes that special provisions should be debated, but he doesn’t want to ban them outright; sometimes the legislature will need to use the special provision process to attract support for a measure it might not otherwise get.


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