Annexation bill gets 'catfish' amendment

Opponents of a bill to require cities to get permission from counties before annexing territory used a time-honored tradition to defeat the measure. They went catfishing.

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Tomato-eating catfish
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — You could see it coming out of the murky legislative water, ready to grab hold of a piece of legislation and thrash it about on the bottom of the river until it drowned.

Enter the catfish.

Monday's victim was House Bill 875, a measure authored by Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, that would force cities to get permission of their home counties before condemning property outside their corporate limits.

Most often, cities and counties use this power for such things as water and sewer lines, typically with little animus between the two government entities. But apparently somewhere up Jordan's way, a city and county have got to feuding, and he wanted to fix it – at least for the county side of the equation.

"The county commissioners would need to be involved," Jordan told the House Local Government Committee, noting that property owners outside the city limits didn't get to vote on city council members.

This prompted some concern from fellow lawmakers who had once been mayors and city council members and such, who said that, typically, when a city is condemning property, it needs to move quickly. Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, pointed to the example of Honda Jet, which required water for its engine plant outside of Burlington's city limits.

Forcing the county commissioners to sign off could mean cities miss out on some big economic development deals, not to mention throwing more red tape on the burning fires of local government bureaucracy.

That argument seemed to be taking hold, but it was a near thing.

So, Rep. Mitch Setzer, R-Catawba, chummed the waters a bit with an amendment.

"This amendment will require counties to get permission from the General Assembly before they exercise their condemnation powers," Setzer said.

If cities needed to run to the county every time they needed to condemn, well, "what's good for the goose will do for the gander," Setzer argued.

Jordan opposed the move, saying that Setzer was comparing apples and oranges.

Fellow members of the committee didn't see it that way and Setzer's amendment passed 7-5.

Now, you may be asking yourself who in the world would vote for a bill that would require counties to supplicate to Raleigh before exercising run of the mill condemnation powers. But that's exactly the point.

A catfish amendment is designed to make a measure so weak it's not worth passing, or alternatively, so unpalatable that it's not able to pass.

Back when he still was on the North Carolina state government beat, Time's Ryan Teague Beckwith offered up a folk etymology for the term, which traced it back to the act of gutting a particularly wiggly catfish. As used today, the term is used to describe any amendment meant to either gut a bill or make it unable to pass, not unlike a catfish grabbing hold of a lure and dragging it to the bottom.

Which is exactly what Setzer's amendment did. The measure failed on a voice vote.

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