Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Of corruption and old-school ties

Of corruption and old-school ties
Close watchers of Gov. Mike Easley’s televised State of the State address last week may have noticed that among the legislators escorting the governor into the House chamber was state Sen. R.C. Soles, D-Columbus, dean of the legislature in terms of longevity.
It was a momentarily startling -- and coincidental -- note, because Mike Easley first came to public notice as a corruption-busting prosecutor in Southeastern N.C. nearly a quarter-century ago, and R.C. Soles was among those caught up in a joint federal-state investigation called COLCOR – short for Columbus County Corruption.
Before that investigation was over, it snared several legislators, several local public officials, a state district court judge and a lieutenant governor. Soles was accused in federal court in an extortion deal, but he was found not guilty.
Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green was accused of accepting a bribe. He was tried in state court in Raleigh rather than in the judicial district that included Green’s home county. Then-prosecutor Easley called the Wake County district attorney and persuaded him that trial should be in Raleigh, where Green presided over the state Senate.
Says who? Says the current Wake District Attorney, Colon Willoughby, a friend of Easley’s who just last week handled the case against former Speaker Jim Black. Black filed an Alford plea on charges of bribing former Rep. Mike Decker to change his vote and keep Black in power in 2003, and of obstructing justice by not reporting contributions. The Alford plea allows Black to be sentenced just as if he had pleaded guilty, but also lets him say he didn’t do it.
In 1983, Willoughby was the acting Wake DA for two three-week periods when DA Randolph Riley was on short leaves of absence, and Willoughby signed the indictment of Green. But two special prosecutors were called in to handle the Green trial. Green was found not guilty probably because while he had clearly discussed accepting a bribe with an undercover agent named “Doc Ryan” and had taken a $2,000 check, he also gave the check back the next day. The jury didn’t think prosecutors had proven their case against Green.
Willoughby now jokes that he was "young and naive" when he agreed to then-DA Easley’s suggestion that the trial be held in Wake Superior Court. Willoughby later was elected Wake DA.
So it was an interesting contrast when Willoughby pursued the case against Black, who was Easley’s strongest legislative ally in the House for the past six years and who delivered Easley’s signature legislative victory, creating the state lottery. That’s also the issue that exposed some of Black’s shenanigans and contributed mightily to his downfall.
Easley and Willoughby remain allies. A couple of years ago when there was an election dispute between candidates over who won the election for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Easley tapped Patricia Willoughby to fill the job until the election was resolved.
She is Colon Willoughby’s spouse, a member of the state Board of Education and a professor at Meredith College in Raleigh – old school ties.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mecklenburg chairmanships in the House

A couple weeks ago this blog listed the committee chairs that Mecklenburg legislators will have in the state Senate. Here’s a rundown on chairs that Mecklenburgers will have in the House this year (Note that Democrats control the House, and thus they hold most of the chairmanships and vice chairmanships. Veteran Republicans have a few vice-chairmanships but first-termer Republicans usually don’t):
Martha Alexander: Chair of Appropriations and Vice Chair of Mental Health Reform. She’s also on five other committees.
(Jim Black resigned and his seat has not been filled)
Becky Carney: Chair of Transportation, Vice Chair of Final Institutions and Vice Chair of Commerce, Small Business and Entrepreneurship. She’ll be on five other committees.
Pete Cunningham: Vice Chair of Military and Veterans Affairs and Assistant to the Speaker. He’ll also be on five other committees.
Beverly Earle: Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Chair of Mental Health Reform and Vice Chair of Health. She’ll also be on four other committees.
Drew Saunders: Chair of Public Utilities and Vice Chair of Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. He is also on five other committees.
Jim Gulley: Vice Chair of Science and Technology. He will be on five other committees.
Ric Killian: A first-termer, he has no chairmanships, but he will be on six committees.
Ruth Samuelson: Also a first-termer, she has no chairmanships, but she will be on seven committees or subcommittees.
Thom Tillis: Also a first-termer, he has no chairmanships, but he is on five committees.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

There is, too, a legislative history

Former Speaker Jim Black’s hopes last fall for a fifth-consecutive speakership suffered a blow when newspapers reported how he had created a $50,000 job as historian of the House of Representatives for Ann Lassiter. She’s the former supervisor of the House page program who was cashiered for allowing her son, a released drug felon, to house teenaged pages in his home while they spent a week in Raleigh working at the legislature.
Black defended the historian’s job creation because, he said, there was no history of the House and there ought to be one. As the whole world knows, Ann Lassiter wasn’t the one to produce a history of the House or its speakers. Newspapers had great fun reporting on the thin sheaf of papers – 23 pages in all and full of typos – that she turned in.
But the whole premise of the House historian job – that there was no legislative history – was false. In fact, there is a legislative history. Former Senate President Pro Tem Henson Barnes, a Wayne County Democrat, had researched and written “A Work in Progress: The North Carolina General Assembly” in 1993. And while it may not rival Stephen Ambrose’s American histories for popular readability, Barnes’ account of legislative production has proved valuable.
Says who?
Says Jack Clairborne of Charlotte, a former associate editor of this newspaper and a gifted writer. He’s writing a history of the Dowd family in the Carolinas and the Southeast, and he called me recently to ask how he could find out what issues were before the House of Commons in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Connor Dowd served there from 1797-1807. I’ve been covering state government a long time, but that was a bit before my day. So I referred him to Barnes’ book.
Here’s what Claiborne wrote back:
“Jack: The Henson Barnes book, "A Work in Progress," contains just the summaries I needed. I found a copy in the UNC Charlotte library. You have saved me and my failing eyes much poring over tiny print in old session laws. Many thanks. Let me do you a favor sometime. Cheers, Jack Claiborne”
(Anyone who wants more info on the Dowds, send me an email and I’ll forward a brief summary of what Jack Claiborne is researching. Sounds interesting. JB)

Monday, February 19, 2007

'Alford plea' came from an N.C. case

What’s this ‘Alford plea’ all about?
A news story posted online at the Observer today indicates that former House Speaker Jim Black will go into state court Tuesday and make an “Alford plea” to charges stemming from a State Board of Elections investigation into campaign finance charges.
The Alford plea will allow him to plead guilty without admitting guilt to the charges.
A lot of folks, naturally, will say, “Huh?” It got some of my colleagues in the editorial department wondering what an Alford plea really is – and whether it applies only in state courts.
Turns out an Alford plea is applicable in both state and federal court. What’s also interesting is that Alford pleas originated here in North Carolina – at least according to Wikipedia, the online dictionary.
Here’s how the entry in Wikipedia begins:
"North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970)[1], was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed on a 5-3 vote that there are no constitutional barriers in place to prevent a judge from accepting a guilty plea from a defendant who wants to plead guilty while still protesting his innocence. This type of plea has become known as an Alford plea, differing slightly from the nolo contendere plea in which the defendant agrees to being sentenced for the crime, but does not admit guilt.”
“Henry Alford was indicted for first-degree murder in 1963,” Wikipedia said. “His attorney interviewed several witnesses who led him to believe Alford was guilty, and that Alford would probably be convicted in a trial. The attorney recommended Alford plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in order to face a lesser sentence, but left the decision to Alford. Before the plea was entered, the court heard sworn testimony from three witnesses. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder, but witnesses did swear that Alford had taken his gun from his house and declared he was going to kill the victim, and upon returning, stated that he had killed the victim. Alford pled guilty to second-degree murder, but declared to the court that he was in fact innocent, and was only pleading guilty to avoid the death penalty, which might have been applied had he been convicted of first-degree murder.”
It’s interesting to read the cast of lawyers involved in arguing the case on appeal. They included then-N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan and his chief deputy Andy Vanore, representing the state, and Charlotte lawyers Julius Chambers and James Ferguson.
For the final word about pleas from those who claim innocence, here’s this quotation (involving a 20th century British barrister and judge, William Birkett) cited by the Monroe County (N.Y.) Office of the Conflict Defender:
Prisoner: "As God is my judge, I am innocent."
Lord Birkett: "He isn’t. I am, and you’re not."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Resignation, after 22 months

With the resignation of former Speaker Jim Black from his seat in the House of Representatives Wednesday and his appearance in court Thursday to plead guilty to a federal charge of public corruption, there are a few folks who can accurately say, “I warned you.” They include former state Rep. John Rhodes of Cornelius and former state Sen. and Rep. Fern Shubert of Marshville.
Both are Republicans and each had significant differences with Black that went well beyond party ideology and to the heart of how the legislature operates. As Republicans in a House dominated by Democrats, they knew the chances of getting a lot of things done were somewhat limited by circumstances.
But they had particular concerns about procedures in the House. Not only were the votes likely to go in the opposite direction, but also their ideas and proposals were not going to get much, if any, of a fair hearing.
Shubert wrote Wednesday in the North Carolina Conservative, “Six years ago, in 2001, when Black was first elected Speaker, I caught a lot of heat because I did not vote for him. I had warned that he would be a disaster as Speaker and told people I would never vote for him for Speaker and I did what I said I would do. I believe I’m the only person who was a member of the House in 2001 who can say they never voted for Jim Black.” Read about that, and her call for continued investigations, here.
Rhodes, who seemed to relish his tangles with Black, called for his resignation (and also Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and Republican Co-Speaker Richard Morgan) in 2005 after news reports disclosed a slush fund Black, Morgan and Basnight controlled . Other Republican legislators present, including Rep. Jim Gulley of Mecklenburg and Sen. Eddie Goodall, also criticized the pork barrel fund but did not call for resignations.
Black’s resignation won’t solve all those problems, of course. Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, alsohas been a frequent critic of legislative procedures and critical of the House leadership’s policies that hampered full and open debate. New Speaker Joe Hackney has taken steps to improve the process. Blust has offered some good ideas for rules changes that ought to be given a serious hearing.
Rhodes lost in the 2005 Republican primary election after some members of his party turned against him in favor of another Republican. That probably stung, but the latest goings-on in Raleigh – including Black’s resignation about 22 months after Rhodes first called for it – probably relieved that sting a bit.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Readers let us have it on Google

Readers respond to Sunday's column about Google.

From a conservative Republican in Cabarrus County:
A great article. I agree with you 100%. Let me give an incident here in Cabarrus.
Around 2000, billionaire John Q. Hammons came into town, and a secret meeting was called by the Concord City Council and Cabarrus County Commissioners. Hammons made a proposal that he would build an Embassy Suite Hotel if the county would build a convention center as a part of the hotel. He would manage the convention center.
Then County Manager Frank Clifton along with pressure from the city tried to get the county to do this. By a 3 to 2 margin, the commissioners refused, saying if the hotel was a profitable venture for Hammons, he would build the convention center himself.
About a year later, Commissioner Bob Carruth came up with the idea to increase the hotel/motel tax and give the increase to Hammons to build the convention center.
Three of us said that it is unfair to have Hammons’ competitors to collect a tax to give to Hammons to build a convention center. After much pressure from the chamber of commerce, etc., the board said NO.
Then, John Q. said, “Since I can’t get public money for this project, I will pay for it myself.” Last month the hotel and convention center opened without public money. Local government officials are easily swayed by these “powerful” interests and their tactics. If it is a profitable venture, they will do it anyway.

From a Mecklenburg County contractor and developer:
I can appreciate your feelings in your article that the taxpayers will pick up the loss of the tax revenue that has been forgone by giving firms like Google these breaks on their taxes. But I wish you would go do the research that has been done showing that the benefits of a project like the Mercedes one in Alabama that show the overall growth in tax revenue far exceeded the breaks given the firm. The $300 millionpackage given to Mercedes which is still considered the largest package in U.S. history has been recouped several times over, based on the growth in the economy and state income tax paid by those people in those higher paying jobs that have been generated...
I hope you won’t take offense at this statement, but it is unfortunate that the Observer is such a liberal, do anything to sell papers to the masses publication that the overall bent of its articles is so anti-business that an article like yours will be accepted by the majority of readers as being the facts. In reality your article is just plain wrong based on the facts. Yes, there are the liberal think tanks or the ultra-conservtive ones that are against any kind of government subsidy, that are against these deals, but the facts don’t support their or your position on this issue.

From a Charlotte project manager:
Just read your article from Sunday’s paper and gained little or nothing from it other than your opinion that the deal was unwise. The reportage on this subject seems to imply that a check was written to Google for the full amount of the incentive or that otherwise due tax dollars that were forgiven. Neither is true.
This is either a justifiable business decision or not. Your article supports neither case.
An unbiased evaluation of this requires that we know the current income of the property in question (from public tax records). The amount of capital investment (for roads and infrastructure) can either be dug up by a good reporter or estimated by someone in the building and development business.
If the return (expected less current tax revenue) is handsome, you should explain why it is still a bad idea. If the return is abysmal, it will support what you have already written.

Excerpted from a response from a citizen in Lenoir:
Depend on the Observer to get worked up over the wrong thing.
The real and unreported scam – an enormous burden on taxpayers past, present and future – is the hideously ineffectual government schooling monopoly.

From a Charlotte reader:
A few things you didn’t mention in your otherwise excellent Google story:
Google’s competition will continue to pay real estate taxes resulting in a very uneven playing field, and the 200 odd jobs “generated” will be filled by NC outsiders and not by those laid off from the local textile industry.

From a reader who describes herself as "a Charlotte patriot":
Tommy and Jack, it is interesting to note your facts on the Google deal are headed by – IN MY OPINION....The arena deal for a billionaire set a precedent, making one-sided deals a common occurrence in our Orwellian new world. Word spreads on states and cities where suckers will buy snake oil!
As taxes in NC are the highest is the Southeast, with mounting crime, and poor performance of public schools – businesses must be lured with incentives and subsidies. The granddaddy of all deals is the gouging of the light rail scam!

From a book dealer in Hickory:
Caldwell has profound problems. For a hundred years there have been enough jobs in the area to keep expectations low. Now there is a brighter light being shown on the low-powered educational situation. Fully 90% of the ordinary high school GRADUATES seem to come out of the schools saying: “He don’t” and “They was.” “Ain’t” is absolutely commonplace. It is almost shocking.
Google is not going to hire these people. If anyone does a study on their employees in two or three years, they will see that the good jobs go to outsiders – who may come from Cary, but they will be outsiders. The construction jobs will be over by that time....
I am grateful that you made the situation in Caldwell County the subject of your column – and Tommy Tomlinson, too. The leadership needs scrutiny there, and they seemed to have had precious little. I just hope that the Observer will follow up and check in two or three years to assess the situation at that time. I’m willing to bet that it won’t be rosy.

Friday, February 09, 2007

North Carolina's political regions

North Carolina’s three new regions
Ferrel Guillory, the former newsman who now directs the Program in Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill sent along a link to a publication that turns our traditional notion of North Carolina’s geography on its ear. (Click on the July 2005 issue, Number 39 in the series, “North Carolina’s Political Geography" -- the third item down.)
For time out of memory we’ve been taught that North Carolina has three principal regions – the mountains of Western N.C., the Piedmont in the central portion and the coastal plain in Eastern N.C.
But based on the gradual concentration of voting strength away from the west and the east in N.C. elections and toward the central region, researchers at UNC describe the state’s political geography as three new groupings:
The Super Eight – the counties with the most votes in the 2004 presidential election, including Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, Buncombe, Cumberland and New Hanover. These counties had 40 percent of the ’04 vote.
The Ex-Urban Rings – the 27 counties that accounted for 35 percent of the vote. “Most are clustered around Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.”
The Country Crowd – the 65 rural counties running along the state’s borders and in the northeast that made up 25 percent of the vote.
These findings in “North Carolina data-net” tell an interesting tale about where Mike Easley and George Bush won in 2004 – and how voting patterns reflect the new political geography. Here’s the link to the program’s home page.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mecklenburgers moving up in Senate

Mecklenburgers moving up in the Senate
When state Senate leaders began handing out committee assignments Wednesday, it was obvious that Mecklenburg’s Dan Clodfelter is moving up again. And Mecklenburg Sens. Charlie Dannelly and Malcolm Graham are among the chamber’s leaders. All three are Democrats.
Coldfelter has proved to be a capable legislator in a number of roles, including revenue policy and especially a chair of the Senate Judiciary I Committee, handling government ethics, lobbyist regulation and a number of other tough ones.
Clodfelter gives up the chairmanship of that committee (though he remains a vice chair) in order to become co-chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, along with David Hoyle of Gaston and John Kerr of Goldsboro. Clodfelter also becomes chairman of a new finance subcommittee on capital and infrastructure financing. And he is also vice chair of Appropriations/Justice and Public Safety. In all (and if I counted right), Clodfelter has eight committee assignments. The new posts puts him in position to continue accumulating clout in the Senate and – who knows? – move into higher leadership positions such as Senate majority leader or president pro tem in future sessions if circumstances permit. He has just become, by the way, chairman of the Mecklenburg delegation to Raleigh.
Dannelly, who is also Senate deputy president pro tem, has eight committees and is chairman of Ways and Means and vice chair of Appropriations/Base Budget.
Graham also has eight committees, and is vice chairman of Information Technology and co-chair of State and Local Government.
Mecklenburg’s two Republicans had fewer assignments. Sen. Eddie Goodall of Union County, who represents a portion of Mecklenburg, got five committee assignments; Sen. Robert Pittenger got three committees.
For more on these assignments, here’s a link to the legislative website. When Speaker Joe Hackney makes House appointments, we’ll take a look at those as well.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

How far east is Eastern N.C.?

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Rudyard Kipling wrote in "The Ballad of East and West." But Rudyard Kipling never had to write about the N.C. General Assembly, as far as I know. And readers let me know what they thought the other day about Sunday’s column about how politicians from Eastern North Carolina may have dominated the executive branch and the Senate chamber in the legislature branch, but not the House – not in a long time, anyhow.
Here’s what a Piedmont businessman wrote:
“Jack, you can easily make the case that the East has not ‘controlled’ the House but it seems a stretch to say the House has been an urban Piedmont stronghold. Nothing remotely urban personally about (Speaker Joe) Hackney, (former Co-Speaker Richard) Morgan, and (former Speaker Harold) Brubaker. I hear you but respectfully differ. If not for (former Speaker Jim) Black, who is not so urban either, the East would likely have run the House. ... in my mind the East is the Triangle East, which takes in (Former Speaker Dan) Blue, particularly with his support of the African-American caucus, strong in the East. ... though I would think of (Rep. Mickey) Michaux as Piedmont and urban, difficult to draw these lines isn’t it?”
And this came from a Triangle policy analyst:
“No disagreement here.
“But could it be simply arithmetic? Smaller districts mirror higher population density more effectively. Even more so since this set of districts, drawn under an urban speaker, are all single member.”
Betts: None?
Analyst: “The current configuration has no multi-member districts.
“In the last one hundred years, we have seen population shift from rural to ‘urban’ areas in NC. Non-rural voters are now a majority of the electorate. If we were a direct democracy, where every voter voted on every legislative issue, the ‘urbans’ would win all the time.
“Larger districts, such as the congressional or state Senate, lessen the influence of the majority ‘urban’ voters because the office holders have enough rural voters to temper their positions. (Interesting House/Senate check & balance?)
“Alternatively: House districts are small enough to reflect the true split in population.
“For example, if you overlay the legislative district maps of Wake County – state Senate Districts look somewhat like pie pieces with Raleigh in the center; while the state House districts look like concentric rings of raisins on the pie....”
And this came in from a friendly fellow who describes himself, at least partly jokingly, I think, as a Republican troglodyte:
“Jack, I’m an old Durham skin - - & my recall is Wake is east, as in coastal plain ;-) Not that it amounts to a hill of peas ;-)”
Betts: I used to have that same view -- but I was from Greensboro, and Durham was East.
Trog: “So you really remember mountains, Piedmont, coastal plain ;-) In Durham we used to look down on little Raleigh: we had nearly twice the population, too many yankees (with their funny cars, eg., MGs, Cords, Jags). But no museums. Or milk shakes to compare with those at Hayes Barton Pharmacy!”

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Big money at the legislature

Here's part of a press release from Democracy North Carolina's Bob Hall, who keeps tabs on who's spending what to elect whom to the N.C. General Assembly. The growth in political action committee (PAC) money is substantial. A link to an online chart of the giving is at the bottom.


Realtors, UNC-CH Boosters, Doctors Top List

As the General Assembly prepares to convene, a new study shows that 25 special-interest groups - each with their own wish list for lawmakers - donated a record $5.1 million directly to state legislative candidates in the 2006 election. The groups include Realtors and beer wholesalers, bankers and dentists, lawyers and utility executives, dentists and auto dealers.

The $5.1 million total is almost double what the same groups gave legislative candidates just four years ago in the 2002 election, said Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, the nonpartisan watchdog group that conducted the analysis. Eleven of the political action committees (PACs)contributed more than $200,000 each; only two gave that much in 2002.

The NC Realtors PAC, which topped the list in both election cycles, contributed $615,715 to General Assembly candidates in 2006, a leap from $235,200 in 2002. The Realtors PAC gave at least $3,000 to 107 of the state's 170 legislators.

Citizens for Higher Education, a relatively new PAC sponsored by boosters of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, came in second place, giving at least $6,000 to 25 sitting legislators.

PACs for the NC Medical Society, NC Home Builders Association, Academy of Trial Lawyers, Progress Energy, Bank of America, Nationwide Insurance, NC Hospital Association, and Duke Energy round out the list of the top 10 PACs. (A few reports have not been processed or received by the State Board of Elections, Hall noted, so totals may be even higher.)

See CHART at the bottom of the online release for a rundown on specifics PAC giving leaders.

Friday, February 02, 2007

More help for college tuition

A few weeks ago a national survey by the online outfit found that former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt was the seventh-most influential person in national educational policy. Those who know about the four-term governor (1977-1985 and 1993-2001) and his energy and drive when it comes to education were wondering what kind of folks could possibly have more than Hunt. (They include Bill Gates, George Bush, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton.) He’ll talk your ear off on policy issues in general, but his energy and appetite for schools policy is formidable.
Anyone with doubts about his influence in national education policy should have been at Thursday’s session of the annual Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State University. Hunt launched the annual forum and what is now the Institute for Emerging Issues while he was governor, and each year he persuades top business, education, nonprofit and political officials to come to Raleigh to talk policy. This year the lineup included U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who dropped a news bomblet during her talk Thursday: the Bush administration will significantly increase support for Pell Grants to help college undergraduates pay the freight. Jane Stancill’s story in the News & Observer has the details.
This is a big deal. The Bush administration got a lot heat for cutting Pell Grants at a time when many students needed more assistance getting to college. North Carolina has traditionally kept tuition low at public universities and community colleges, but it has risen over time – and a lot of students think college is just too costly for them to even consider going.
Getting Spellings to come to Raleigh was one coup for Hunt. Getting her to announce the big increase in Pell Grants at the Raleigh forum was another. But Hunt had an inside track; he served on a task force with Spellings and pushed for the Pell Grant increase.
Here’s a link to Spellings’ speech.
And here’s a list of those ranked as most influential on education:
1. Bill Gates
2. George W. Bush
3. Kati Haycock
4. G. Reid Lyon
5. Edward Kennedy
6. Bill Clinton
7. (Tie) - Richard Riley and Jim Hunt
9. Marshall “Mike” Smith
10. (Tie) - Linda Darling-Hammond and Margaret Spellings
12. George Miler
13. Chester Finn, Jr.

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.