By the time the General Assembly adjourned in early July, Republican House members were fed up.
Their frustrations weren’t only with legislation considered on the final days of session. They were irritated too with the process by which bills ended up in front of them. They weren’t happy with the Senate either.
Those frustrations spilled over during debates in a House committee and on the House floor on the session’s final day. In each case, the House stood up to a powerful senator, sending messages that House Republicans weren’t taking part in political games and questionable processes.
The first sign of House Republicans’ discontent came during a Finance Committee meeting. If normal procedures had been followed, a bill to change the way the city of Jacksonville is allowed to spend room occupancy tax revenues wouldn’t have been in front of the committee. Typically, occupancy tax bills go through a special House subcommittee to determine whether they comply with House guidelines to ensure municipalities don’t abuse their power to raise cash through extra taxes on hotel stays.
House Bill 46, which would have helped Jacksonville build a sports complex, didn’t comply, but it never went to the subcommittee. Its sponsor was powerful Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican, Senate majority leader and that chamber’s chief budget writer. Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican and House Rules chairman, acknowledged openly that the bill was being heard because Brown helped certain House bills move in the Senate.
Brown said senators were frustrated by the House guidelines and that if his bill wasn’t approved, the Senate might stop hearing certain House bills. But Republican committee members argued that passing Brown’s bill would open a slippery slope and wouldn’t be fair to other legislators who followed the occupancy tax guidelines.
Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, said he was bothered by Brown’s comments inferring “retribution of some sort” if Senate bills didn’t get through the House.
“I ran for office, and I was hoping that my perception that legislation is evaluated on its own merits is the way we pass stuff here and not on the basis of … what type of cooperation we get from the opposite chamber,” Warren said. Brown responded that he thinks it happens on both sides and “it’s a shame it does.”
The committee shot down Brown’s bill, 18-9.
Republican frustration was on display again on the floor later that day as the House considered a bill to create Asheville City Council districts. Its sponsor was another powerful senator – Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican.
Other Asheville-area legislators opposed the proposal. Local bills aren’t supposed to be heard in short sessions unless they have unanimous support among the local delegation. But the Asheville bill was deemed an elections bill, rather than a local bill, even though similar bills during other sessions have been local bills.
Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican who often speaks out about bad processes, started his comments against the bill in a loud, angry tone and was gaveled down by House Speaker Tim Moore.
“When you start playing these games, you do become part of the problem,” Blust said.
A couple of legislators commented that the integrity of the House was at stake in the vote.
Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, insisted the bill was a local bill, and he urged fellow legislators to consider how they would feel if such a change was made in their district without their support.
“I just think it’s bad business now, and it would be bad business when it happens in your district,” Speciale said. The House voted against the bill, 59-47, with two dozen Republicans joining Democrats voting no.
Patrick Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government Service in Raleigh. Reach him at email@example.com.