From the Editor

A bill to make you ill

Executive EditorFebruary 20, 2010 

No wonder those kids visiting Raleigh last weekend got sick. They were learning how state government works.

About a thousand students from across the state attended the YMCA Youth and Government conference. More than 150 got sick with symptoms consistent with food poisoning. The Wake County Health Department is investigating.

What the students saw and read while in Raleigh couldn't have helped.

On Friday, right there on the front page of this family newspaper, was a stomach-churning report that should not have been read by young people. We should have added one of those peel-off front-page stickers that says, "WARNING: FOR MATURE READERS ONLY."

I am not making fun of the students, some of whom were so sick they had to be hospitalized. I am making fun of how the legislature sometimes works, as illustrated by the story last Friday.

At the request of the state Department of Correction, legislators passed a budget bill in August that allows the state to pay less to have inmates treated at hospitals. State spending on hospital care for inmates has tripled in 10 years. Gov. Bev Perdue signed the bill.

But Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina objected. It approached then-Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat (also known as the senator from Blue Cross). Rand gutted the bill by inserting language into a "technical corrections bill," which is not intended to contain substantive changes to the law.

Blue Cross said it pushed the change because the law was constitutionally defective. Maybe so. I am not debating the measure. I'm saying the process was larded with salmonella. Legislation ought to be debated in committee and in each chamber. It ought not to be decided in a sneaky "technical corrections bill."

For years, the Democrats who run the legislature have said this kind of closed-kitchen maneuvering is unavoidable in the last days of a legislative session. Baloney. It's necessary only if the legislative leadership is undisciplined.

Businesses across this state set goals, plan their year and manage their projects. They set and enforce deadlines.

Government doesn't have to be sloppy. Look at what UNC system President Erskine Bowles achieved when he ran the Small Business Administration and the Clinton White House. Bowles brought discipline to Clinton's schedule and enabled Clinton to make some of his biggest achievements, including a budget-balancing deal with Republicans.

Yes, Bowles worked in the executive branch. But the same concepts apply to running any organization. Plenty of states limit the number of days in their legislative sessions and build in time for open debate.

In our legislature, we get the worst of both worlds - meandering, expensive sessions and hidden lawmaking.

We could have a more orderly and open legislature. It's a question of whether the leadership has the will and the ability to do so. When you watch the North Carolina legislature up close, sometimes you can't help but feel sick.

john.drescher@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4515

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