JOHN HOOD: Finally, an Agenda for N.C. Legislative Reform
They took their own sour time.
But finally, leading members of the General Assembly, the Democratic Party, and North Carolina's commentariat have come out with more-or-less straightforward condemnations of former House Speaker Jim Black and his criminal co-conspirators for hijacking state government and using its power to extort campaign cash, overturn election results, and reward special interests at the expense of average North Carolinians.
Now, what are they going to do about it?
Obviously, it's the judiciary that will decide the proper correctional arrangements of those copping Black-eye pleas. But this is not only a criminal case. It's a case of gross abuse of legislative procedure and political power. Lawmakers have the ability to reduce the risk of future abuses.
New Speaker Joe Hackney, a longtime reform advocate, has proposed changes in the House rules. They constitute a promising start on reducing such risks. Still, while the cocoon surrounding the Legislative Building has been pierced, many of its denizens have yet to shake off their somnolence and emerge into reality. They continue to believe that while Black may have strayed, the legislature under his partial leadership "did a lot of good" and that "we shouldn't lose sight of the big picture."
They are in denial. The big picture is that the North Carolina legislature has not conducted its business efficiently and fairly, and has devoted excessive time to overseeing the private affairs of North Carolinians while devoting insufficient time to overseeing the public affairs of state government.
The bigger picture is that, for a time at least, the Democratic Party controlled the House not because the public elected them but because Jim Black bribed Michael Decker to switch parties, thus creating a 60-60 split and a subsequent co-speakership. This fact calls into question the legitimacy of the resulting legislation, including the current electoral districts. Sorry, that's part of the current reality, too.
To regain the public trust, and to set right at least some of what has gone so horribly wrong, state policymakers must be forthright, resolute, and bold.
They should recognize that corruption has tainted past legislative action, and that in the future their work will be judged not simply by the intended ends but by whether the means used to enact the legislation were just.
Here are some starting points for reform, many of them endorsed by the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform (of which I am a member):
-- Ban special provisions in the state budget, "floating" committee members that help ram bills through deliberative committees, and "blank" bills used to circumvent filing deadlines and hide legislative intent.
-- Truly do the public's business in public. All committee votes should be recorded and posted on the Internet, for example.
-- Take seriously the right of all elected legislators to represent their constituents in legislative debate. That means the presiding officer must recognize any member for a legitimate motion or point of order. That means an end to slipping items into conference reports that were not previously approved by a floor vote. That means giving rank-and-file members several days to study massive pieces of legislation, such as the budget bill, before taking a vote.
-- Ensure robust political competition, which may not be in the best interest of incumbents but is very much in the best interest of North Carolina voters. That at least means a limit of four years on the terms of House speakers and Senate presidents pro tem.
Robust political competition also means redistricting reform, which would set neutral rules for drawing political maps and entrust the task to an independent commission. And it means applying the same campaign-finance rules to political-party caucuses, controlled by legislative leaders, as are applied to individuals. No House speaker or Senate leader should enjoy the unique ability to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash to their preferred candidates in the (all-too-few) competitive races.
First, the political class in Raleigh was obviously balking. Now it is talking. Let's see some walking.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.com. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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