UPDATED: See below.
Senate leaders will start their debate on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions Monday afternoon. But they didn’t want anyone to know about it.
According to the public notices released today, the Senate Judiciary 1 committee will be meeting Monday on H61, “Speaker/Pro Tem Term Limits” - a proposal to limit the numbers of years House and Senate members can serve as leaders of their chambers.
But a new version of the bill leaked to WRAL Friday night shows the bill the committee will take up Monday has absolutely nothing to do with term limits. The new H61 is an amended version of the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
You can try to look it up at the legislature’s website, but you won’t find it there.
At 4:31 Friday afternoon, the Senate Judiciary 1 clerk sent out public notice that the committee would meet Monday at 1:30 to discuss "H61, Speaker/Pro Tem Term Limits." Public comment, the notice said, would be taken, but only if the public showed up between 1:00pm and 1:30pm in Legislative Office Building Rm. 643 to sign up.
At 4:42 pm, Senate staff attorney Susan Sitze sent all Senate Judiciary 1 members the new marriage-amendment version of the bill to be discussed Monday afternoon. This is what's called a "proposed committee substitute," or PCS. It's not available to the public.
At 5:25 pm, 40 minutes later, the Senate Calendar was sent to the public and posted on the website, again listing the topic of Monday’s Senate Judiciary 1 meeting as “Speaker/Pro Tem Term Limits.”
'Not trying to hide'
Senate Leader Phil Berger’s Chief of Staff Jim Blaine said there was no attempt to hide anything. “Under Senate rules, we don’t have to notice meetings until midnight the day of the meeting, and at the same time send out a PCS.”
Then why tell the public you’re talking about term limits Monday, when you’re really planning to debate the marriage amendment?
“Well, that’s the name of the bill,” Blaine answered.
“We are in no way, shape or form trying to hide this,” Blaine said. “If we wanted to sneak this through, we’d put it out Monday at noon. If you notice the members of the committee on Friday, it’s public domain.”
But the state’s open meetings law requires that the public, not just meeting attendees, be informed about what their elected officials are voting on. How would they know you’re planning to debate this bill?
“You have it, don’t you?” Blaine asked. “I think they will be given every opportunity to weigh in."
The only reason I have it, I explained, is because it was leaked to me by a third party – not because the public was informed about it.
So how would the public would know what they’re planning to vote on? If the purpose of the state’s open meetings law is to inform the public about elected officials are planning to do, why tell the public you’re going to be voting on something completely different?
“I think you’re down the wrong track on this. It will be in the public domain well in advance of the meeting," Blaine said.
How far in advance? Blaine wouldn’t say, except to note that Senate rules require notice by midnight the day of the meeting.
“We have exceeded the requirements,” Blaine repeated. “This is the same process that takes place for Senate committee meetings all year."
It's fair to note that in the past, Democrats have used this tactic, too - but not on anything as controversial or high-profile as a constitutional amendment on marriage. In comparison, House GOP leaders have generally avoided this tactic: when they've rolled out PCS with different content, they've noted it on the public meeting announcement.
UPDATE: At 2:45pm Saturday, the Senate Judiciary 1 clerk sent out a corrected meeting notice for Monday's meeting, with the following note:
Corrected: * Please note that the language regarding term limits has been replaced with language pertaining to the marriage amendment. A copy of the new language was sent out with the original notice and is also attached to this notice.*
This is not entirely true. I received the original public notice Friday afternoon, and the "new language" was not attached to it. But a copy of the new bill has been attached to today's announcement. It's the same document that was leaked to WRAL last night.