Republicans in the state House came under continued criticism Tuesday over their use of members-only committees to hear from special interest groups in secret.
The issue surfaced late last week when House members met behind closed doors with lobbyists advocating for video gambling, and then removed a News & Observer reporter from the room.
The Republicans have had other such committee meetings. One session of a GOP health committee in January took in presentations from doctors, pharmacists, adult-care home owners and owners of assisted living facilities , officials acknowledged in interviews Tuesday. The focus, according to House majority leader Paul Stam of Apex, was on "how to optimize the health care system."
Stam said that committee meeting was unrelated to the chamber's first major piece of legislation, a bill that would challenge the federal health care overhaul.
Rep. Jeff Barnhart, a Cabarrus Republican, said that the meeting lasted all day and that a wide range of people discussed "hot policy issues." He said he could not recall who was there and did not think a written agenda exists.
On Tuesday, Democrats pressed the issue, suggesting the practice skirts state law and requesting an ethics probe of the lawmaker who led last week's gambling meeting.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, also said openness should rule.
"It's important that those kinds of meetings be open and accessible to folks," Berger said.
The video gambling meeting was run by Rep. Mike C. Stone of Sanford, who owns a grocery that had eight video gambling machines until a few days ago. He removed four afterThe N&O asked about them and said the rest would be gone soon. State law bans the machines, though some owners are still operating because of a favorable court ruling in Guilford County.
Stone and Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican, removed The N&O reporter just before the 15 to 20 lawmakers present were to hear from a half-dozen lobbyists and advocates for video gambling.
Lewis, a five-term representative, said the purpose of the secrecy is to let lawmakers discuss topics without scrutiny in a setting where the members "feel more comfortable."
"Nobody really wants to see so-and-so ask the dumbest question of the day," Lewis said. "I think that's the reason we maintain that."
At that time, House Speaker Thom Tillis gave a different reason for the secrecy when questioned last week about the practice.
"There are people that we want to hear from that may or may not feel as comfortable under your lights," he told reporters. The private setting, he said, is for the special interest people to feel free to have an "open and honest" discussion.
"They're perfectly content to have the discussion in front of you," Tillis said of the lawmakers.
Tillis and others say the meetings are part of their caucus dealings and can be handled in secret.
A caucus is typically a gathering of members of one political party. Often, a caucus meeting is where the members of each party sort out political differences, go over polling, formulate floor strategy and line up votes on an issue.
The legislature has a range of committees and subcommittees, made up of members of both parties, that meet regularly and take in information as part of developing policies. Democrats have been complaining on the House floor in the early part of the session this year that Republicansweren't allowing for public hearings or real committee work.
House Republicans have a total of eight committees to discuss policies among themselves and, at times, with special interest groups.
On Tuesday, Democrats from the House outlined a broad agenda that included creating jobs and protecting education. They made the point that it was the legislators' idea.
"This isn't coming from special interests; it isn't from lobbyists," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat.
Republicans had long complained of secrecy under Democratic rule in North Carolina, and many House Republicans have been hearing from people in their own party about the issue, several acknowledged in interviews.
State law says meetings of the legislature are open to the public, including committees and subcommittees that conduct hearings, deliberate or take action.
Lawmakers have exempted from the meetings law "a caucus by members of the General Assembly."
The law adds to that: "[H]owever, no member of the General Assembly shall participate in a caucus which is called for the purpose of evading or subverting" the open meetings law.
Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, a leading Democrat in the House, said the Republicans have created a shadow committee system that should concern the public.
"They are subverting the whole committee process by doing that," he said.
Tillis wasn't commenting on the issue Tuesday. A spokesman said his office will be "issuing a communication [today] concerning the policy committees."
But already, there are signs of more openness.
The media were notified of a GOP education policy meeting that was held at midday Tuesday; but it fizzled when only a few legislators showed.
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