GOP caucus closes doors to meeting with gaming lobbyists

Posted February 10, 2011

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— Advocates and opponents of the gaming industry briefed House Republican lawmakers Thursday in a meeting behind closed doors, an anomaly, but one that is perfectly legal. The likely agenda was the legalization of Internet gambling.

Most legislative meetings are governed by the state’s open meetings law. But that law specifically exempts legislative caucuses and conference committees. Most of the time, according to people who go to those meetings, the only attendees are members of the group, discussing their positions on issues.

That’s not the case for state House Republicans. Last year, they set up a list of eight caucus “policy committees” covering the budget, jobs and economic development, transportation, health care, education, environment, private property and personal liberty, and criminal justice. Those committees are no secret: the caucus announced it was forming them, and that they would hear presentations from “affected parties.”

New House Speaker Thom Tillis has openly called for increased transparency and public access. On Thursday, he defended the closed meetings, saying it was his idea to offer members basic education on legislative process and issues. “I think it improves the overall knowledge of the members. They’re more informed when they get to the floor.”

Thom Tillis Tillis: GOP's closed-door meetings legal

Advocates for public access and other members of the General Assembly called the meetings highly irregular.

Bob Phillips, with Common Cause, a government reform advocacy group, said, “I don't think this passes the smell test. That the caucus has private meetings to go over strategy, votes, politics, etc. is one thing. But to be conducting "educational" meetings that are behind closed doors and limited to one party is problematic. Policy issues in the people's House should be open, not closed.”

Minority Leader Joe Hackney said under his leadership, House Democrats had visits from elected officials from time to time. His caucus will be meeting with the new party chairman next week. “But we’ve never had anyone in to help us make policy. That should be done in public.”

Senate Republicans don’t have many visitors, either, according to Jim Blaine, chief of staff for Senate Leader Phil Berger. “Senate Republican caucuses are for senators only. If they want to speak to staff, they ask to speak to staff. Otherwise, I can’t comment on what happens in caucus.”

Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Jeff Giertz was even more blunt. “Registered lobbyists do not attend official meetings of the Democratic Caucus,“ he said.

Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) chaired the Legislative Black Caucus from 2007 to 2011. She said from time to time, her group has met with “representatives of organizations, like the NAACP. But not lobbyists.”

Tillis says some of the meetings have been open. And he doubts House Republicans are the only group meeting with lobbyists in private. “I think it would be very unlikely that subsets of any caucus have not sat down to just meet with people. They can call it whatever they want to, but any time a group of members gets together, it’s a caucus of some sort.”

Asked whether policy issues should always be discussed and vetted in public, Tillis said, “They will, to the extent that they affect material legislation.” He says closed meetings allow lawmakers to ask questions they might not ask in public for fear of being perceived as ignorant or biased.

Brenda Erickson is a senior research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. She’s studied caucuses around the county, and she says laws governing them vary. “In some states, they’re required to be open. In others, they’re exempt from the open meetings law. It runs the gamut.”

Erickson says caucuses in state legislatures usually play three main roles – selecting leadership, information gathering and dissemination and policy formulation. “On the public side, many people think it’s in the public’s interest to be able to observe discussions that affect the public interest.”

“But many caucus leaders prefer closed doors because it allows them to plan a coherent strategy,” Erickson explained. “Closed caucuses allow for free and open questions, and many of those discussions do eventually come out on the chamber floor.”


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  • blackdog Feb 11, 2011

    We're not supposed to know what our representatives are planning. Communism...remember ?

  • blackdog Feb 11, 2011

    The lobbyists invited the lawmakers to their private party. What was it the republicans campaigned? Oh yeah... No lobbyists and complete transparency. Yeah....right.

  • cwood3 Feb 11, 2011

    Thank you shoutntime, that still does not justify closed doors.
    It sounds like it's against the "open meetings law". That's our concern.

    In addition, we complained about Dems doing this, and so our Republican friends go & do the same thing. Transparancy means transparency-end of conversation.

  • artist Feb 11, 2011

    Nothing changes.

    In lieu of current feelings toward politicians in general.... why hold any closed door meetings? Whether it's legal or not..... when will somebody actually do the right thing?

    Why not try something new?...... like transparency?

  • shoutntime Feb 11, 2011

    If you have never been part of a meeting like this I don't expect you to understand. I have never been to one where policy was discussed. It is comprised of mostly asking questions as not to seem uninformed when it goes before the public. The public will not know all the questions being asked but they will be informed when Gaming once again is brought up in the house. Right now the house is on a fact finding mission to see how video gaming works and how it can be regulated and how much money can be brought into the budget from video gaming.

  • Cricket at the lake Feb 11, 2011

    The government and gambling should never be combined. The lottery is shameful and hypocracy at the highest level. We finally have Republicans controlling the state and they are going down this road, behind closed doors at that. Cut spending and balance the budget but not like this. Way to give the other side a lot to talk about, guys!

  • 6079 SMITH W Feb 11, 2011

    That's different....Jim is a democrat, we expect that sort of corruption from those guys. We all know that our newly elected republican representatives would never get involved with any shady lobbyists in a pocket-lining backroom deal. ;)

  • sillywabbitthepatriot Feb 11, 2011

    Don't forget Jim Black's "relationship" with lobbyist Meredith whatshername.

  • MillerB Feb 11, 2011

    We don't want the public to know how much the lobbyists are paying us to make this decision, so you're not allowed in

  • bill0 Feb 11, 2011

    "What's wrong with locking the lobbyists out of an educational meeting? They are trying to education themselves and get unbiased views on gambling in NC. What's the problem, why should lobbyists be present?"

    Huh? They didn't lock lobbyist out. They invited lobbyists in and locked the public out.