With little or even no public debate, North Carolina's Republican lawmakers are poised to enact sweeping changes to state government.
Reshaping the way the state oversees elections, ethics and lobbying.
Blocking new labor, environmental and farm rules stricter than federal standards.
Moving the State Bureau of Investigation out of the Justice Department, a move the attorney general says would harm ongoing investigations.
Senate budget writers also would change public school calendars, put limits on the expansion of Charlotte transit and no longer give laid-off state employees "priority consideration" for state jobs.
The measures are among the so-called special provisions in the 376-page Senate budget expected to be approved this week. Critics say the budget should focus on dollars and cents. They say it should not make major policy changes without more public scrutiny.
"Special provisions fly in the face of the need for the people to have debate on significant issues," says former House Speaker Joe Mavretic, a Democrat.
GOP leaders defend the provisions as a legitimate part of the budget.
"A budget is more than just dollars," says Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Rockingham County. "A budget is a policy statement by the General Assembly... We would say we have limited the provisions to (those) that relate to spending."
He says all the policy changes affect spending. He says critics are "masking their disagreement about policy with a disagreement about procedure."
But Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, says this year's provisions are "just as bad as when the Democrats were in control."
"Some of these may be good ideas," Coble says. "They may be bad ideas. But they don't belong in the budget. They belong in separate bills."
Long partisan history
Special provisions have long been controversial.
In 1986, Coble called them "a Pandora's box" that "contain a variety of plagues that undermine the legislative process, work against the public interest and erode the authority of ... government."
Democratic leaders inserted special provisions into budgets that rank-and-file members had little time to scrutinize. Mavretic was elected speaker in 1989 partly in reaction to such practices. He sought to minimize them in subsequent House budgets, as did later Democratic speakers Dan Blue and Joe Hackney. Democrats who controlled the Senate continued to favor them.
John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, says "the most egregious example" of a special provision came in 1997, when a Republican-controlled House inserted into its budget a complete overhaul of the state's welfare laws.
"It was clearly wrong to enact that through the budget process," he says. "You don't want to roll everything up in the budget bill so that you can't have separate votes on major policy changes."
Bills are generally explained and debated in at least one committee where the public can have a say and advocates of both sides can make their case. After the committee votes, the bills go to the floor of each chamber for more debate.
Senate Republicans unveiled their budget Tuesday, passed it out of committee on Wednesday and expect to take their first floor vote today. They say they've given lawmakers and the public more time to review it than Democrats did.
"Our complaint in the past was that special provisions come in and we had 30 minutes to read them," says GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews. "Now there's five days. The paper's not hot and the ink isn't wet."
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