SCOTT MOONEYHAM: What Will Basnight Leave Behind Him?
Short of an unlikely, unforeseen coup or Republican landslide this November, Marc Basnight will probably be leader of the state Senate at least three more years.
His run as president pro tem of the Senate, which began in 1993, may well stretch a few more years beyond the end of his next term.
Still, Basnight, celebrating his 61st birthday this week, is surely well into the downslope of his tenure as political boss.
As such, here's a question for the Dare County Democrat: Are the legislature and the chamber that you lead in better or worse shape today than was when you arrived in 1985?
It's not an easy question to answer.
According to several accounts, Basnight himself was disturbed by the lack of openness when he arrived at the legislature. He butted heads with powerful Senate Appropriations Committee chair Ken Royall over the issue.
It's popular these days to bash legislators over the lack of openness in today's legislature, and there's no doubt that legislators could and should do more of the public's business out in the open. Still, budgets aren't decided in secret meetings by a Gang of Eight, and the many budget subcommittee chairs do exercise real power.
In 2008, the professionalism at the legislature is probably better as well, mainly due to a permanent legislative staff that is competent and typically nonpartisan.
Still, by other measures, the legislature can hardly be gauged as better.
Increasingly, it's not very representative of the people, the membership dominated by retirees. Considering its job is to make the laws of the state, there are far fewer lawyers among the ranks today than 20 or 30 years ago.
A few legislators still proudly invoke the mantra of "citizen legislature," due to the part-time pay (less than $14,000 a year for rank-and-file members, minus expense payments) and alleged part-time schedule.
But look at where that has gotten this legislature? A former House speaker and two House members sit in prison after one, Jim Black, took cash payments in a bathroom and the others, Thomas Wright and Michael Decker, without real gainful employment for several years, apparently lived off campaign contributions.
Meanwhile, the permanent staff that really runs the place grumbles because a legislature that never knows whether it will conclude sessions in August or October tends to making planning one's life difficult. Over time, it's bound to affect the quality of the work force.
Basnight, current House Speaker Joe Hackney and the rest of the gang -- many of them with a little reluctance -- changed seedier practices with lobbying reform that discourages lobbyists from wining and dining legislators. The reforms will improve legislative culture.
But no one, including Basnight, was willing to spend the political capital needed to purchase real institutional reform.
Apparently Basnight doesn't believe you get what you pay for, and that the 10th-most-populous state can get by with a legislative model created for an agrarian economy. Is that really the legacy he wants to leave behind?
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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