Local Politics

Hackney Rolls Out New Rules for the House

Posted February 28, 2007 12:21 p.m. EST
Updated February 28, 2007 9:10 p.m. EST

— House Speaker Joe Hackney rolled out new rules Wednesday for the chamber that are aimed, at least in part, at curbing some of the powers that critics say his predecessor abused.

"I've been here a long time. I have accumulated a lot of opinions about how things ought to work," said Hackney, D-Orange. "More than anything else, this is sort of how I think they ought to work."

The proposed rules governing how the House will debate and vote on legislation are an arcane topic that rarely garners attention outside of the Legislative Building. But after former Speaker Jim Black entered pleas to bribery and obstruction of justice in recent weeks, both Republicans and reform groups ramped up their demand for change.

"Right now is an historic opportunity given the cloud we're under to actually fix things and make them right from here on out," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. "These are good changes, but basically the speaker can still call the shots."

Hackney shepherded ethics and lobbying reform bills through the House last year and pledged a comprehensive look at the rules when he was elected speaker in January. He said he talked with legislative staff, fellow Democrats and House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, before rolling out the rules, which must be approved by a majority vote in the Democratic-controlled House.

The rules would prohibit the House's budget from containing policy provisions that aren't related to taxes or spending. Black was criticized last year for inserting into the budget - with little debate - a provision requiring all public school children to get a comprehensive eye exam before entering kindergarten.

Federal prosecutors also said Black used his power as Speaker to insert into the 2005 budget a provision that benefited chiropractors while three industry members were giving him thousands of dollars in illegal cash.

Hackney's rules would also eliminate the right of a handful of House members to sit on any committee. Started during Republican control of the chamber in the mid-1990s, the so-called "floaters" give the majority party extra votes to push through legislation.

Another rule would generally prevent the House from considering legislation on the same day it clears a committee, but the majority party still gets to control what bills are heard on the floor and in committee.

"It does not guarantee every member that their bills will come to the floor, or even in the priority of things that all bills will be heard," Hackney said. "Judgments have to be made."

The new rules include several recommendations of the bipartisan North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, including a ban on blank placeholder bills that can be used to sneak in last-minute legislation.

Hackney said he did not include a rule change to impose term limits on the speaker, because he and others believe that would likely require a change to the state constitution. He didn't say whether there would be debate on the topic this year.

The House Rules Committee will consider the rules Thursday, said Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, the committee's chairman.