Regulations on rent-to-own businesses emerged for the first time around the dinner hour in the legislature on Thursday. The businesses wanted it. What customers would get out of it was never clear.
Legislators asked to vote on the idea in a House committee had to rely on opinions from competing lobbyists for most of their information.
Lobbyists for the companies said it would help consumers. Consumer advocates said it would help the companies.
A member of the legislature's nonpartisan staff said she couldn't answer a lawmaker's question because she'd just read the proposal that day and didn't have time to do any research.
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"They hid this on purpose," said Al Ripley, a lawyer who works on consumer issues at the left-leaning NC Justice Center.
This is a crucial time for state residents, as their representatives are rushing to end their work for the year. Important changes to elections, consumer rights, tax laws and medical care are first made public hours, or even minutes, before legislators start voting on them.
House Speaker Tim Moore defended the work.
"People know what's happening," said Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican. "The bills that are on the calendar were bills that have been in controversy now for weeks. Those who are particularly interested in those bills have been involved with them. No members have come to me of either party and pushed back and said I haven't had time to read the bill."
He noted that the rent-to-own bill, set for a House vote Friday, was sidelined.
"We take care of those things through the process," he said.
Some residents have told legislators they're unhappy with secrecy and surprises.
Kevin Brock, a Waynesville voter, told Rep. Mike Clampitt in an email that the legislature should strive for greater openness.
"The conduct of business during this short session of the General Assembly raises great concerns with transparency, the routine order of things, and the processes by which the representatives of the people seek to do the people's business," Brock said in an email, in which he objected to the legislature setting up a budget process so lawmakers couldn't make changes.
"Numerous other pieces of legislation in the session were rushed through, with text substituted into bills with placeholder titles, published in the middle of the night, with no opportunity for the people to even know what's going on," Brock said. "Good policies and good legislation can stand the scrutiny of daylight. I urge you to seriously ponder the processes that I describe, and reflect upon the nature of doing the people's work."
In his reply, Clampitt, a Bryson City Republican, said the legislature is not operating in secret.
"It is apparent that the media and those with a negative agenda have your minds poisoned to the this process," Clampitt wrote.
An election law change was the symbol of rushed legislation this week. Changes to early voting were released close to midnight on Wednesday. Discussions and votes started less than 12 hours later.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett Republican in charge of elections proposals in the House, said he didn't talk to the state elections board members or elections staff about eliminating the last Saturday of the early voting schedule — one of the most popular days for African-American voters — while adding a Wednesday at the beginning, and requiring counties to keep all their early voting sites for 12 hours on weekdays.
County elections officials didn't know either, and the mandate is throwing a wrench in their plans for the general election.
Democrats objected to eliminating the last Saturday, which they said would hurt African-American voters more than others.
"This General Assembly should not be in the business of taking away the freedoms of the people of this state," said Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat.
After the proposal got rolling, it was all over in less than two days. The Senate took its 23-11 vote approving the changes Friday afternoon.
Lewis told House members Friday he wished that he could have made the proposal public last week, but everyone was working on the budget.
"I understand the frustration when things seem to appear," he said. "Yes, I wish I'd put this out last week. I concede that would have been better for this process. but we are where we are."
Some legislators dismissed worries about the early voting changes.
The bill is “expanding early voting hours and availability for every population and for every voter in this state," said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican.
A Raleigh voter sent an email to all 50 senators at about 11 p.m., saying they should be ashamed of their actions.
"Our State Legislature is the poster child of hollowing out Democracy from within," she wrote. "Shame on those of you limiting our basic right to vote. Shame for sneaking around in the middle of the night changing laws without public discourse. You think no one is watching, or no one cares; or maybe you just think your untouchable. But you’re wrong."
Sen. Rick Horner, a Wilson Republican, replied in an email that went to all senators a few minutes later.
"Stop bothering people at such an hour," he wrote.
Rushing important bills at the end of sessions is a legislative tradition, and the party in power has tools to keep opponents guessing and off balance.
"It's called the 'silly season,'" said Rep. Darren Jackson, House Democratic leader from Wake County.
Controversial bills come in at the last minute and at night because supporters know that nuances will slip by bleary-eyed critics and that some older legislators cannot endure the long hours, Jackson said.
"They bring last minute bills up with bad language knowing they’ll be controversial and knowing people are too tired to fight about it," Jackson said. "It seems like we get worse every session..”