Opinion: Daily Journal

‘Jordan rule’ would take effect under successor’s proposal

Rep. Ray Russell, D-Watauga, unveils the North Carolina Sunshine Act on March 12, 2019.
Rep. Ray Russell, D-Watauga, unveils the North Carolina Sunshine Act on March 12, 2019.

If state lawmakers agree to jettison a controversial legislative tactic, combatants in one of North Carolina’s most closely contested 2018 campaigns might both be able to claim some credit.

The tactic is called “gut and amend” or “gut and replace.” Top legislators employ it when they strip the contents of a House or Senate bill, then replace those contents with completely different language covering a separate topic.

Their motivation need not be nefarious. Once the General Assembly’s self-imposed bill-filing deadlines have passed, lawmakers face limited options for addressing new ideas. A bill that’s going nowhere can prove to be a tempting “vehicle” for carrying new legislation. Gutting a dead bill can make room for legislation that’s likely to pass.

The gut-and-amend tactic also can save time. If majority caucuses in both the House and Senate agree informally to approve a measure, leaders might gut a bill that already has passed through one chamber. That move can cut days from the legislative process.

Regardless of increased efficiency, the tactic defies the goal of legislative transparency.

In a recent column, this observer highlighted one retiring lawmaker’s concerns about gutting and amending bills. Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan had told the Ashe Post and Times late last year that one of his least favorite memories of his legislative service involved the 2013 “motorcycle abortion bill.”

A powerful legislator had used Jordan’s committee to transform a motorcycle safety bill into a measure focusing on abortion rules. “That was a mistake,” Jordan told the Ashe County newspaper. “We didn’t know enough at that time, but we should have said to the speaker, ‘No sir, we’re not doing that.’”

As the N.C. House debated rules for the 2019-20 legislative session, this columnist proposed that lawmakers ponder Jordan’s comments. If they had decided to reject the gut-and-amend procedure, the change could have been dubbed the “Jordan rule.”

The House took no action at that time. But now the issue has a champion. He’s the man who sent Jordan into legislative retirement.

First-year Rep. Ray Russell, D-Watauga, topped Jordan in last November’s House District 93 race. Russell won 52 percent of the vote. His victory margin amounted to 1,591 votes out of almost 36,000 total ballots cast.

Russell and three Democratic colleagues address the substance of the “Jordan rule” in House Bill 341, the North Carolina Sunshine Act, filed March 12. The measure would expand live broadcasts of legislative sessions and committee hearings. It would require 24 hours of notice before any bill could clear either the House or Senate. It would limit lawmakers’ public meetings to the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Under the heading of “germaneness,” the Sunshine Act would require that the full title of a bill “shall adequately and fairly reflect” its subject matter. Other than the state budget bill, two-thirds of the House or Senate would have to vote to approve any bill dealing with more than one subject.

The bill also would require a two-thirds vote to consider any amendment or substitute bill that employs the gut-and-amend tactic. In other words, Russell and his colleagues would place the Jordan rule into law.

The change would “stop what I would call interrupting the regularly scheduled programming,” Russell said during a news conference unveiling the Sunshine Act.

It’s unclear whether Russell read Jordan’s original lament about gut-and-amend tactics. Nor did he cite this columnist’s musings about changing legislative rules. But the freshman representative did credit another newspaper column about limited legislative transparency. Russell said his reading prompted him to draft the Sunshine Act.

In a state House run by Republicans, prospects appear dim for legislation sponsored by four Democrats and no GOP colleagues. That’s true despite Democrats’ increased presence in the House, thanks to elections like the one in which Russell unseated Jordan in District 93. House leaders signaled their disinterest in giving Russell an easy legislative path. The Sunshine Act must clear a dozen different committees before it could face a House vote.

Still, some ideas incorporated in the Sunshine Act could secure bipartisan support. Russell’s colleagues already have voted 115-1 to approve House Bill 218. That Republican-led bill would lead to video webcasts and some television broadcasts of House meetings. The measure calls for a study of televising Senate sessions.

Working across the aisle, Russell and his co-sponsors might pick up GOP support for other Sunshine Act provisions. To secure a new ban on gut-and-amend tactics, Russell could remind colleagues about the “motorcycle abortion bill.” That’s the anecdote that disturbed his predecessor and former opponent.

It might even help his sales pitch if he’s willing to call the measure the Jordan rule.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.