How to bring more sunshine to the NC legislature

jfrank@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2013 

  • Sunshine Week

    This is Sunshine Week, when advocates for transparent government highlight the value of freedom-of-information laws. Look for more coverage this week.

— Ethics complaints against a legislator. A lawmaker’s daily appointment schedule. The final negotiations on the state budget. None of that information is readily accessible to the public.

The open meetings and public records laws that govern state agencies and local boards don’t apply evenly to the body that wrote the law: the N.C. General Assembly.

Even though major components of the lawmaking process are open – such as committee hearings, legislative sessions and bills – other meetings and records are hidden from the public’s view.

“To me there is a fair amount of ambush in the process that could be avoided,” said John Bussian, a media law attorney that represents the N.C. Press Association.

Open government advocates and some lawmakers acknowledge more transparency is needed, while others are protective of their traditions.

In interviews, dozens of advocates, lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staffers suggested ways to shed more sunshine on the legislature. Here are 10 recommendations – big and small – that could make the legislature more accessible to the public:

OPEN PUBLIC RECORDS: Legislative attorneys contend lawmakers are protected from releasing most records under legislative privilege. And a separate state law declares nearly all records exchanged among legislators and staff members confidential. About half the states have similar measures or exempt the legislature from the public records law.

A lawmaker can release records voluntarily, but it is not a universal practice.

A particular concern is a lawmaker’s emails and calendars, most of which are not required to be open to public inspection, making it difficult to see how special interests influence legislation and how lawmakers make their decisions.

What it would take to change: State lawmakers can decide to open their records to the public on an individual basis. But a change in state law – and some contend the constitution – is necessary to require disclosure and repeal legislative confidentiality protections.

BROADCAST LEGISLATIVE MEETINGS: A state-level C-SPAN service is a frequent topic of discussion among lawmakers. In 2008, a special House committee recommended video broadcasting live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the sessions and certain committee meetings, starting on the legislature’s website and eventually airing on statewide television. Nearly 40 states broadcast in video on the Internet and 28 air legislative sessions on TV, the committee found at the time.

In North Carolina, only audio broadcasts of the House and Senate sessions and two select committee rooms are available on the General Assembly’s website. The House archives its audio but not the Senate. Some lawmakers downplay the need, saying only a few hundred people listen on even the busiest days.

What it would take to change: The committee’s report wasn’t implemented because of the cost, which was estimated at $1.3 million to install cameras and additional equipment. The recurring costs for staff and upgrades were estimated at $600,000 a year. Lawmakers would need to include the money in the state budget.

OPEN CONFERENCE COMMITTEES: State lawmakers put a specific exemption in the open meetings law for conference committees, the jointly appointed House-Senate panels that meet to hash out differences in legislation approved by each chamber. The committees – particularly when it comes to the state budget – hold incredible power to negotiate public policies in private. Not even the meeting locations and times are disclosed.

What it would take to change: A bill is needed to remove the exemption from the open meetings law. Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, expressed interest in looking at a change.

MAKE CAUCUSES PUBLIC MEETINGS: The 11 exceptions to the state’s open meetings law also include legislative caucus meetings. The House and Senate form caucuses based on political party or interest, such as the Democratic caucus, sportsmen’s caucus and conservative caucus. Supporters say the closed meetings ensure frank internal discussions.

However, when one party holds majorities in the House and Senate, the decisions about legislation made in a party caucus can ensure its success or failure.

What it would take to change: Lawmakers would need to approve legislation removing the exemption for caucus meetings, but both Democrats and Republicans are resistant.

REQUIRE DISCLOSURE OF PCS BILLS: A proposed committee substitute, known as a PCS, often appears in a committee with no notice and completely rewrites a bill. Open government advocates favor a requirement that lawmakers introduce any amendments to legislation at least a day in advance to allow public notice, especially with a PCS which can often change the entire subject of a bill.

What it would take to change: Political will. The House and Senate could make such a requirement in their respective rules.

REQUIRE ONLINE CAMPAIGN FINANCE FILINGS: State lawmakers can file paper campaign finance reports or a searchable, electronic form in a spreadsheet. But only about one-third of all political committees use the electronic method, making it more difficult for the public to review which donors and special interests are supporting lawmakers, and harder for regulators to audit the reports.

What it would take to change: A bill requiring electronic campaign finance disclosure is needed, but a bipartisan effort last session never received a hearing. That bill’s sponsors are expected to try again this session.

ABOLISH LAWMAKER-ONLY CAFETERIA: The basement-level cafeteria at the legislative complex includes a room marked with a sign: “Members Dining Room.” Only lawmakers are allowed in the private area, sectioned off with walls from where the public, staffers and lobbyists eat. George Hall, the legislative services director, said it’s a place for lawmakers to lunch quickly and discuss legislation without being overheard.

What it would take to change: The members-only rule is controlled by the Legislative Services Commission, which hasn’t met since 1999. But the House speaker and Senate president pro tem can issue a directive to change the rules.

OPEN LEGISLATIVE ETHICS COMMITTEE: The legislative ethics process is shrouded in secrecy. The joint House-Senate committee reviews all complaints against lawmakers in private and resolves most without notice. It also issues advisory opinions to lawmakers with questions in private. The process is only unlocked when charges are brought and a public hearing is scheduled, a rare instance.

What it would take to change: The committee’s meetings and its records are protected under exemptions in the open government laws. Various law changes would be needed to open the process and lawmakers are wary.

REPEAL SECOND FLOOR BAN: An obscure rule restricts visitors from the second floor of the Legislative Building, home to members’ offices and the chambers, and allows legislative staff to ask visitors to leave – a rule the House speaker’s office used in the previous legislative session to remove demonstrators.

What it would take to change: The Legislative Services Commission or the House and Senate leaders could change the rule.

POST ETHICS DISCLOSURE FORMS ONLINE: All state lawmakers must file annual financial disclosure forms with the State Ethics Commission, but it takes a public records request to receive one. The Statements of Economic Interests are not posted to the commission’s website.

What it would take to change: Not much. The commission is working with a contractor to get the disclosures online by the end of the year, though additional state money may be needed to maintain the system.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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