News: Charlotte Exclusives

Gov’t Reformers Urge Greater Transparency From Republican Leaders

Coalition asks legislative leaders to publicize meetings, avoid late-night sessions

A coalition of more than 50 individuals and nonprofits that supports open government has asked the leaders of the N.C. House and Senate to live up to their pledges to be more transparent.

On Feb. 8, the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform hand-delivered a letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, asking the leaders to do more business in public during the remainder of the 2012 legislative session.

The letter asks Tillis and Berger to support full sunshine principles by providing clear and precise calendars for House and Senate legislative sessions and committee meetings at least five business days in advance, along with a list of the issues that will be addressed. The letter also requests Republican leaders to provide copies of bills to members of both houses and to the public and to hold sessions at regular times with advance notice to both members and citizens.

Jane Pinsky, the coalition’s director, told Carolina Journal that as of Feb. 23, she had received no response from either leader.

The John Locke Foundation, publisher of CJ, is a member of the coalition, a nonpartisan organization formed in 2005 to promote good-government policies and advocate reforms in government lobbying and ethics.

This action comes in response to the firestorm caused when the Republican majority convened the legislature in the early hours of Jan. 5 to override the veto of a bill preventing the N.C. Association of Educators from deducting dues automatically from the paychecks of the teacher union’s 70,000-plus members.

Democrats and opposition groups have called the move unprecedented and unconstitutional. Republicans adjourned the Jan. 4 special session called by Gov. Bev Perdue to consider a veto override of the 2009 Racial Justice Act. GOP leaders then passed resolutions to consider veto overrides of other bills in a new special session to be convened at 1:00 the next morning. This, in the eyes of critics, failed to provide sufficient public notice.

Pinsky gave the Republican leaders high marks for the way they handled the legislative process during the early phases of the session. But as 2011 ended, “Republicans harkened back to doing the very things they justifiably had complained of when Democrats were in the majority,” Pinsky said.

Conducting the people’s business in the wee hours of the morning when the public, media, and even lawmakers have almost no advance notice lends a feeling of secrecy, and “citizens lose confidence in government when they feel lawmakers are trying to hide something,” Pinsky said.

In the letter, Pinsky praised Tillis for making the legislative agenda for Feb. 16 clear and hoped to see the same standard applied for the rest of the year.

Pinksy told CJ that she didn’t think the Republican leadership’s actions were purposeful but a result of the workload. She said she’d also like to see the Senate make its archives available online, the same way the House does. “Whatever we can do to empower citizens to participate in their government, the better,” Pinsky said.

Pinsky said the coalition had not received any official response, and CJ’s phone calls and emails to Speaker Tillis and President Pro Tem Berger to learn what, if any, action would be taken on the Coalition’s requests were unsuccessful.

“The John Locke Foundation has long been a proponent of government transparency,” said Becki Gray, vice president of outreach at JLF. The foundation in 2009 created NCTransparency.com, a website encouraging North Carolina government entities to be more transparent by making important information easily available online.

While Gray said the Republican leadership should have acted more wisely, the early morning session was neither unprecedented nor unconstitutional. Lawmakers of both parties and both chambers must pass a joint resolution at the adjournment of all regular, short, and special sessions laying out what items will be considered in upcoming sessions.

“Any legislator that claims shock over items that were considered isn’t doing his or her job. The legislator has to vote on the adjournment resolution and should be aware of what they voted on,” Gray said.

Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.