Are lawmakers dodging protesters?
Posted June 3, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — When the Rev. William Barber and his followers in the "Moral Monday" movement wanted to deliver a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger on Monday, they had to settle for leaving a rolled-up missive wedged in the door handles of the legislative building.
Lawmakers had finished their work early for the day, and the building was locked when Barber arrived around 5:30 p.m.
"Instead of meeting with us, they're afraid, literally afraid, to look in the eyes of the people whom their policies are hurting," Barber said.
For years, Monday night sessions have been the norm while the General Assembly is in session. Typically, these meetings have been held around 7 p.m. Last year, they were the backdrop for protesters who entered the courtyard between the two chambers to sing, pray and air their disagreements with the Republican-led legislature.
This year, protesters have not had the chance to directly confront lawmakers, as Monday evening sessions have been largely pro forma, or not happened at all. Legislative leaders say they aren't doing anything unusual by not spending time on the floor when they don't need to be in session.
Barber doesn't see it that way.
"We know they have avoided us," he said as he led followers from the doors of the Legislative Building to the historic Capitol. "All of our letters, all of our calls, all of our attempts to sit down and have a real policy discussion have been thwarted."
So far this spring, three Mondays have passed since the legislature has been in session. One was Memorial Day, a traditional day off. On May 19, the House held only a perfunctory skeleton session, during which no business is taken up and only a few lawmakers are on hand. The state Senate conducted no meaningful business, although most members were on the floor for a few minutes.
On Monday, the state House again held a skeleton session, while the Senate did not hold session at all after meeting until midnight hour of Saturday morning.
"We just needed a break this week," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow. Of rescheduling sessions to avoid protesters said, "That's not accurate at all. We haven't discussed it."
Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, chuckled when asked why lawmakers were rescheduling work away from Monday nights.
"The speaker is the one that gets to set the schedule," Starnes said, referring to state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
He said that Tillis would have to answer the question about why the House is meeting as it does.
Of the protesters, Starnes said, "I haven't been here on Mondays, so I don't know if they're here or not."
If protesters are changing the legislative schedule, the change in lawmakers' work flow seems to be impacting the protesters' tactics as well.
The Tuesday after Memorial Day, a group of 15 protesters sat in at Tillis' legislative office until they were removed in the wee hours of the following morning. On Monday, a group of protesters attempted to occupy Gov. Pat McCrory's office at the Capitol.
As for Tillis, a spokeswoman said the schedule was merely a matter of timing. Also, Tillis was out of town on May 19 for a fundraiser for his U.S. Senate campaign.
Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said the House wants to avoid Monday night session to give lawmakers time to work on their day jobs.
"For those of us who live farther away, we appreciate it," Moore said.
In addition, he said, keeping Monday sessions short give budget writers more time to work. That said, there will be a return to Monday sessions at some point.
"I don't know if it's next week, but we're going to have to start those at some point," he said.