Democracy fails when decisions are made on legislation, and laws are influenced by arm-twisting and fear of retaliation; democracy fails when voices are silenced due to fear of arousing the anger of a fellow legislator.
Something is terribly wrong when veteran legislative observers (and some elected officials) are shocked by what they see and hear happening.
Traveling to and from the state capital has become a normal part of my job this spring. With the change in political control of the N.C. House of Representatives and Senate, the wind has turned against those in this line of work, resulting in four pieces of proposed legislation that would remove the legal requirement to publish information in newspapers to inform the public.
A succession of bills – proposed legislation to curtail the use of newspapers to inform the public of public information – is moving, has moved rapidly through the process. End of “crossover” legislative sessions Thursday, whatever that time of day or night it is, will mercifully end the attacks against newspapers for this year, or at least the introduction of any new action.
The process of how an idea becomes law requires proposal (bills may begin the process in either chamber), bill drafting, and three readings (votes) in each legislative body. But first, the proposed bill is read, approved and sent to a committee where it can die, languish or move on. With an affirmative vote, it moves to an all-member floor vote in the first chamber. Amendments can be added. Substitutions can be made. Each has a vote. Two more readings and legislation next moves in the same fashion through the second chamber. Victory here means the bill goes to the governor for signing or veto.
Two proposals to allow removal of municipal government notices from newspapers, each having begun at roughly the same time; HB 504 and SB 287 were withdrawn from Tuesday’s calendar at the end of a long day, because it was quietly said, proponents didn’t have the needed vote for passage.
Both are called “local bills,” affecting only those in designated counties, versus state-wide legislation of which in this case there are two: storage unit lien auction of stored goods, in addition to one removing from newspapers required Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DNER) public notices.
These requirements were made law many, many years ago to establish accountability to protect the citizens from abuse of government and abuse by private business as in the case of the storage unit auction of customers’ goods without adequate notice.
On Tuesday, I was in Raleigh for HB 504 and 287 votes in the House. Plus on the Senate side, HB 243 was on its final vote.
Placed on the calendars late Monday night, about a dozen newspaper managers, publishers and association representatives scrambled to shift workloads and jump in the car for Raleigh with little to no sleep.
We began arriving at 8 a.m. only to be told that the bills would be not be heard until afternoon.
Once the House session resumed at 2 p.m., the bills were skipped over on the calendar with no explanation. Word was proponents still didn’t have the votes for passage. Maneuvering and arm-twisting ensued; some of it was actually visible from the gallery.
Meanwhile on the Senate side, things turned ugly on HB 243. Victory turned sour in an overtly vindictive display that defies the maturity one should expect from any “esteemed” member of the North Carolina Senate.
HB 243 is the bill that allows owners of self-storage facilities to advertise the sale of unclaimed/seized property in any format they choose. Currently, such sales have to be advertised in a newspaper of general circulation.
The voting on an amendment offered by Sen. Floyd McKissick that would have continued to require advertising in newspapers at first was adopted by eight votes. But victory was bitterly brief. Then came a flurry of vote changes, including a stunning one by Sen. Tommy Tucker, who initially voted for the amendment. In announcing his dramatic switch he brought up the drubbing he had received from newspapers, saying he had a “pound of flesh” to take.
In the end, Sen. Tom Apodaca asked for a revote on the amendment, on the basis of trying to clarify the vote count. The new vote ended with the amendment failing by two votes.
HB 243 next carried by two votes, even though Republicans had joined all of the Democrats in the Senate in voting against it, including Sen. Thom Goolsby, who previously very outspoken on transparency, was strangely silent this day.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt, who spoke for the amendment and against the bill, opined that the vote was really about harming newspapers, a charge denied by the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Harry Brown.
Next stop for this storage unit lien notice bill is the governor’s desk.
Very late in the day, the House finally had some debate on HB 504, but this was almost exclusively by the bill sponsor, Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County. In his remarks, McGrady told the House that “newspapers are dying” and shouldn’t be given a subsidy from local governments to continue publishing public notices. He called on House members to give deference to their colleagues attaching their counties to the bill and deference to the counties and municipalities in a time honored, do-for-me-what-you-would-want-me-to-do-for-you appeal.
Being paid to run public notices with third party accountability is not a subsidy, but money in exchange for valuable services provided. Money stays in the local community through payrolls and purchases.
This battle is centered on giving deference to the citizens, not to governmental institutions to usurp the work of private business.
Several amendments are in the queue for 504, including ones to remove Buncombe and Gaston counties, while another adds Rowan County. Rep. Ted Davis Jr. did not, as previously indicated, offer an amendment to add NHC on Tuesday. And Rep. Rick Catlin did not, as previously indicated, make his argument on the floor against Sen. McGrady’s bill.
Both HB 504 and 287 were then delayed again until Wednesday. Rep. McGregor used this overnight delay to attempt to sway House members to vote for his bill. Paid lobbyists for the county and municipal leagues also showed up Wednesday to pressure representatives.
Late Tuesday night, the House had added a vote on the “DENR” bill to Wednesday’s calendar. This bill, HB 755, affects the entire state, allowing the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to give notice of hearings with only notices posted on its website and emails to those people who sign up in advance to receive them.
Current notices of such hearings dealing with issues of wells and discharge of waste to surface water must be published in newspapers. Under this bill only those regularly checking the state-operated website or those who had the foresight to sign up for email notification would be alerted.
After waiting all day again on Wednesday, action on these three had been pushed to midnight. Delaying to gain votes was the name of the game.
Each time I drag myself home from Raleigh, I become more and more convinced by what I see and hear that bullies are running the show in our state legislature; vindictive legislation is being pushed through by way of intimidation; arms are being twisted to change votes on laws to harm those who are deemed to have wronged those now holding power.
I am just naive enough to believe that is not only reprehensible, but plain wrong, not to mention un-Godly.