Editorial: Legislative haste & negligence yields confusion & disruption

Posted July 1, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

CBC Editorial: Wednesday, July 1, 2020; Editorial #8558
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company.

If you wonder:

  • What happens when some legislators shove things through in the dead-of-night at the closing minutes of a legislative session?
  • What happens when other legislators fail to do their jobs – such as reading legislation they vote into law?
  • What happens when a two-and-a-half-page bill titled “SENATE BILL 168: Expand Allowed Medical Uses/Cannabis Extract” on April 10, 2019; becomes a 5-page bill and is renamed “DHHS & Other Revisions” one year and two months later; and then is 17 pages two days later?

Here’s what. Watch this. Public uproar, protests and arrests.

The devolution of Senate Bill 168 is the poster child for how not to do things in a legislative body. It is, unfortunately, too typical of normal operating procedure. It is why the General Assembly bumbles and bungles. Regardless of any beneficial content, this bill’s faults and lack of scrutiny merit Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. His message should be simple: “You did not do your jobs.”

It is easy and certainly appropriate to hold those who run the legislature responsible for this catastrophe. But there isn’t a member of the legislature – Republican or Democrat -- who is not without fault.

Some chronology is important. It shows how a legislator can vote for one thing one day, then be presented with the same bill more than a year later and that vote has been transformed into a vote for something completely different. Legislators may assume one thing – but failing to be told the whole story, lacking time to dig into the details and ask questions – can take actions to the contrary.

On Wednesday, April 10, 2019 the Senate voted 42-4 for Sen. Floyd McKissick’s bill to allow greater use of cannabis extract for supervised medical treatment of chronic conditions, including epilepsy. Five days later the bill arrived in the House and unacted upon for more than a year.

Suddenly, last Wednesday – as the legislature was in its rushed waning hours -- the bill was taken up. It no longer was about medical use of cannabis and had blossomed a bit more than two pages to more than twice the size. The new version, NOTHING like the original, was titled “DHHS & Other Revisions.” Among these new provisions: establishing “confidentiality for certain death investigation information.”

The bill came to the House floor and passed 118-1 (Republican Dennis Riddell of Alamance County was the lone dissent).

That provision proved to be the hot-button that ignited the controversy. But the sorry evolution isn’t done.

The bill and its little-noticed provision disappeared into a conference committee.

Did the Senate look to keep what it initially passed – allowing medical use of cannabis – in the bill? Nope.

The conference committee turned the 5-page bill into a 17-page Christmas Tree distributing millions of dollars in social services block grants. Many are seemingly worthy causes – but arrived with no open discussion or debate.

This version – the one on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk – passed the Senate without a single dissent and just one “no” vote in the House.

What there wasn’t was any real discussion about impact of the legislation. But if legislators didn’t notice, others did. It has erupted into worthy controversy over whether critical public records in death investigations – such as those that might involve use of excessive force by law enforcement – could become secret.

At best this significant change lacked the scrutiny we expect our elected legislators to do. At worst, it is a dangerous move that could keep important information from the public and fail to hold police accountable.

Amid the protests, key legislative leaders have promised to fix and correct the issue. "After further conversations and discussions about its unintended consequences, I am confident this will be revisited and corrected once the legislature reconvenes," said House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne. His comments were echoed by House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis.

This is a fatally flawed piece of legislation. The governor must veto this bill.

If there are any worthwhile and necessary elements in the legislation, the legislature can write a new bill and give it open, transparent and full consideration so EVERY legislator is informed when they vote.

The protesters in front of the Executive Mansion may be rowdy and unruly. But on Tuesday – and way too often these days – they are right.

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