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Message sent: General Assembly transparency bill given 13 hurdles to clear

March 15th, 2019

— A freshman Democrat’s transparency bill has been routed to 12 different committees in the House, an unheard of series of hurdles that, to put it mildly, does not bode well for passage.

You could actually call it 13 committees, since state Rep. Ray Russell’s bill is slated to go twice through the House Rules committee, a way station where leadership can decide a bill’s fate.

“The life of a freshman,” Russell, D-Watauga, said in a text.

Russell’s House Bill 341 runs two pages, and he titled it the “North Carolina Sunshine Act.” It makes several changes to General Assembly practice, such as forbidding late-night sessions and bills that pop up unannounced – both fairly standard tactics in North Carolina and in other states.

It would also require video streams of floor sessions and most committee meetings to be broadcast on the internet, something the House is already moving toward, albeit more slowly than Russell’s bill proscribes. House leadership has also committed this year to schedule changes meant to make the legislative process more predictable.

It’s unclear why Russell’s bill needs a hearing in, for example, the House committee that deals with the Department of Transportation budget.

Mark Coggins, policy adviser to Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, whose House Rules committee helps chart a bill’s path through the chamber, said in an email that “we felt Rep. Russell’s bill needs ample time in the sunshine.”

It’s not unusual for bills to go through multiple committees in the House. Three, four, even half a dozen isn’t unheard of, and the House has been sending legislation through more committees this year than in years past.

But 12? That’s not a thing.

In fact, of the 362 bills filed in the House so far this session, none face so daunting a path. Gerry Cohen, the now-retired legislative attorney who is a go-to source on General Assembly history in the state, said he’s never seen so many referrals.

Here’s the list of committees and subcommittees the bill would have to clear before going to the House floor:

  • Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House
  • State and Local Government
  • Appropriations
  • Finance
  • Judiciary
  • Appropriations, Information Technology
  • Appropriations, Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources
  • Appropriations, Education
  • Appropriations, General Government
  • Appropriations, Health and Human Services
  • Appropriations, Justice and Public Safety
  • Appropriations, Transportation
  • Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House (again)

To become law, the bill would then have to pass the House before May 9, head to the Senate for more committee meetings and votes, then get signed by the governor.

Russell said he’s prepared to defend his bill in all 13 House committee meetings, but he acknowledged he probably won’t get a chance. His bill is likely to sit.

The Democrat called the serial referrals “a badge of courage.”

Russell’s bill would:

  • require live streaming of all House and Senate sessions, with archives available to the public.
  • require the same for most legislative committees
  • require all bills to be on a chamber calender at least 24 hours before a vote unless the rule is waived by two-thirds of chamber membership
  • implement a similar rule for legislative committees
  • forbid legislative sessions before 7 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless the rule is waived by a two-thirds vote
  • End the “gut and amend” process that allows legislative leadership to tack unrelated items into bills to aid passage
  • Require legislators to sign their names to changes made in the state budget bill

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