You would think that the supermajority margins the Republicans enjoy in the House and Senate would make it easy for them to finally fulfill their promises of having an open and transparent legislative process.
They have the votes to pass anything they want any time they want. They don’t have to wait until after midnight when Democrats are absent to override a veto or bribe a Democrat into switching a vote by adding something the Democrat wants to a bill in the middle of the night.
They don’t have to rule with an iron, undemocratic fist—but it looks like they will anyway.
That is one of the clear messages from the first week of this legislative session, that Republican legislative leaders have no interest in an open process.
They want to use their legislative majorities to stifle legislative debate, to ram complicated and controversial bills through committees with little discussion and few amendments and virtually no comments from the outside the committee from people affected by the legislation lawmakers are considering.
The House took up the massive 70-page rewrite of the state’s unemployment compensation system in the Finance Committee Thursday with a days notice.
New lawmakers still trying to figure out where their offices are were asked to vote on a radical restructuring of a program that provides a safety net for thousands of people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
There’s no way many of the new members understood what they were voting on. The bill doesn’t just slash benefits on workers and temporarily increase taxes on some companies to repay a debt to the federal government.
It changes eligibility standards, imposes new waiting periods, and changes the formula for benefits and how taxes are assessed.
Most of the new Republican members simply voted the way they were told to vote by the House leadership and the lobbyists with the N.C. Chamber who wrote the bill behind closed door with legislative leaders last fall.
House Speaker Thom Tillis said earlier this week that the bill was “vetted” by the Revenue Laws Committee. That would be the committee that spent one public meeting discussing the secret plan to slash benefits that was created in a month of secret gatherings of a “working group” of corporate lobbyists and key Republican legislators.
No labor representatives or other worker advocates were invited to be part of the group. They were not allowed to speak until the next to last Revenue Laws Committee meeting when a handful of people were given one minute each to address the committee.
Rep. Julia Howard told worker advocates there wasn’t time for national experts who disagreed with the bill to address the Revenue Laws Committee, that there would be time in House Finance for a full discussion and debate.
But that debate was cut off too, with Speaker Tillis citing the “vetting” in Revenue Laws as justification to rush the bill through the House.
And it’s not just happening in the House. The Senate Insurance Committee approved a bill Thursday that would block the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, move that would deny health care for 500,000 low-income people in the state.
The bill would also prohibit North Carolina from setting up its own health insurance exchange under the federal health law.
The committee meeting was more of an ideological rampage than a debate, with Republican leaders impatiently allowing a few Democrats to speak. There was no outside testimony about the benefits of Medicaid expansion, the people it would help, the $15 billion it would bring in to North Carolina hospitals in the next 10 years, or the money it would save by offsetting emergency room expenses of people who currently do not have insurance but show up at hospitals anyway.
The question of Medicaid expansion is one of the biggest decisions this General Assembly will make. It will affect hundreds of thousands of people and medical providers in every corner of North Carolina. It deserves more than an hour of rushed discussion on the second day of the session. But it didn’t get it.
Instead the bill was rammed through the Senate committee just like the bill to slash benefits for unemployed workers was rammed through the House committee the same morning.
Many pundits will tell you that the public doesn’t care about the legislative process, that all the talk of the lack of debate and heavy-handed tactics of the legislative leaders doesn’t really matter, that it’s all inside baseball.
That doesn’t make it right of course. And Republicans ought to be careful about being too cavalier about what matters to the public.
Voters, trapped by gerrymandered maps, may have elected Republican majorities in the General Assembly in November.
But they didn’t vote for dictators and they won’t tolerate them for long.