Point of View

Legislative loss of civility

January 11, 2012 

— Even when embroiled in the bitter debates that have shaped our history, our General Assembly has never abandoned its trust in someone's handshake and word or the extension of genuine courtesy to all who come to participate in a process that needs them.

For example, Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, got up and found a glass of water for a gentleman who was hoarsely reciting all of the reasons he disliked Folwell's bill. That was both smart politics and good government. Such courtesy has allowed and encouraged the flow of ideas and information necessary to solve problems.

A week ago, our General Assembly forgot its raising.

Lynn Holmes, the former Employment Security Commission chair and now head of the consolidated agency at the state Department of Commerce, was invited several weeks ago to appear before the Legislative Revenue Laws Commission with her new boss, Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco. Crisco was on a business trip and Holmes had a personal obligation she could not get out of, so their colleague, and her superior, Deputy Secretary Dale Carroll, filled in for them nicely. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, was presiding and moved that Holmes be subpoenaed to a follow-up meeting, which was held last Wednesday.

This action means deputy at your door with legal papers and consequences if you don't show. It is just not done; it is just not necessary.

A clearly puzzled committee went along with the chairman's lead. The equally busy, equally absent and equally trustworthy Crisco was not subpoenaed. The implied need for Holmes to be treated differently was a deliberate poke in her eye and perhaps a reflection of their continuing effort to blame her for an upcoming unemployment insurance rate increase.

That increase was not caused by this General Assembly and certainly not Holmes. Our $2.6 billion debt to the federal government came from the collision of a terrible economy with ill-conceived but popular rate breaks given to business years ago.

At the meeting, Holmes provided specific answers in writing to every question that had been submitted and patiently explained them in detail. Before she answered any questions from the committee, Rucho required her to take an unprecedented step and be put under oath. They had a court reporter and a Bible waiting, but no real reason for her treatment other than a vague reference to "circumstances."

It was a stunning insult to her. Her staff was present and watched. One of them answered similar questions but he wasn't sworn. The commerce secretary testified too, but wasn't asked to place his hand on a Bible. Even a paid advocate from Washington who spouted many numbers regarding inheritance tax wasn't required to raise his hand.

Lynn Holmes, who served as staff counsel to U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., and led government relations for AT&T in this state for many years, graciously agreed to the demand. Her answers were not any more or less because of that oath and the needless embarrassment. Watching, I felt shame for our state for trapping her and for dissolving, in that thoughtless moment, a proud and useful tradition of North Carolina decency.

We have largely avoided the legalistic quagmire and personal enmity that burdens our friends across the Potomac. It robs our nation of workable solutions. There will now be the temptation, if not the need, to lawyer-up and give answers constrained to specific questions with nothing volunteered.

What has made a part-time, two year term, citizen legislature possible is a collegial spirit and unspoken expectation that those who appear anticipate and volunteer answers to questions that should be asked. We move away from many of the principles and benefits of democracy when we become a government of legal adversaries locked in endless and needless conflict.

Harry Payne is senior counsel for policy and law at the N.C. Justice Center. He is a former state legislator who chaired the House Committee on Rules, former labor commissioner and former chairman of the Employment Security Commission.

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