The day before the state Senate reconvened this week and considered several pieces of controversial legislation, from complex regulatory reform to local taxes to teacher assistant funding, the spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger told reporters that the Senate was meeting only to consider an adjournment resolution.
But when the Senate Rules Committee met Thursday evening, the funding change for teacher assistants was on the table and Senators were told in a session an hour later that they would also vote on a new version of 47-page regulatory reform bill while they were in town.
It’s a perfectly appropriate ending to a two-year session marked not only by a long list of startlingly regressive legislation that punishes workers, threatens the environment and damages our schools, but by a new way of running the General Assembly that makes it almost impossible for the public and even many Senators themselves to have any meaningful input into the important decisions being made.
The teacher assistants change that Governor Pat McCrory and local school systems requested was tied to a another bill that capped local tax rates and funded a new economic development program that the House soundly rejected a few weeks ago.
Senate leaders decided to force the House to reconsider that bill and pass it or schools would not receive the funding change they needed to keep teacher assistants in classrooms. In other words, it was last minute legislative blackmail.
Senate leaders not only defeated an attempt on the Senate floor to decouple the two bills, they also refused to allow any debate on a proposal by Senator Josh Stein to reinstate the automatic funding of enrollment increases in public schools that was changed in this year’s budget, a move that Governor McCrory had also mentioned as a concern.
Senate Rules Chair Tom Apodaca said he didn’t appreciate Sen. Stein’s comments “at this late hour,” but it was the hour and process that Apodaca and other Senate leaders chose after signaling publicly that nothing of substance would be debated this week, only when to adjourn.
One of the first bills passed by this 2013-2014 General Assembly last year was legislation refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and provide health care coverage for 500,000 uninsured adults.
The Senate committee that considered that legislation heard no outside testimony. Senate leaders didn’t allow it in the hastily called meeting. There was very little debate allowed at all. The decision was made by the folks running the Senate and that was that.
It was a common pattern in the last two years, important bills popping out of nowhere with no notice and little debate allowed. The most egregious example was the decision by House leaders with no notice to turn a motorcycle safety bill into legislation that also restricted access to abortion services.
The final budget passed a few weeks ago included dozens of provisions most legislators had never seen, including the one that ended the automatic funding of school enrollment increases.
This two-year legislative session will be long remembered for the disastrous policy decisions that that make life more difficult for millions of people and threaten the state’s long term prosperity.
But it also will go down as one of the most undemocratic sessions in decades, where a few powerful leaders made all the decisions without allowing the people and the elected officials who represent most of them to fully participate.
It didn’t have to be this way. Republicans enjoyed super majorities this session in both the House and Senate. They had the votes to do what they wanted.
But full debate and an open and transparent process takes time and allows more scrutiny of what lawmakers are doing and what it means for people’s lives. And that is most likely what they were afraid of.