Local Politics

Top lawmakers control flow of legislation

Posted May 13, 2009 6:35 p.m. EDT
Updated May 13, 2009 6:57 p.m. EDT

— More than 2,700 bills were filed in the General Assembly this year, and many will die Thursday when they don't pass either the House or the Senate before the so-called crossover deadline.

The flow of much of that legislation is controlled by a few lawmakers who lead each chamber – House Speaker Joe Hackney, House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight and Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand – and political observers say that makes them more powerful than the governor.

"(They) decide where legislation goes, what legislation moves and what legislation doesn't," said Scott Mooneyham, editor of the political newsletter The Insider. "The way power flows up here, it's all kind of get along, go along, and people benefit."

Mooneyham said the concentration of power is more apparent in the Senate, where Basnight, D-Dare, is in his 16th year in charge – the longest run in state history. Hackney, D-Orange, is in his third year atop of the House leadership.

Senate members said Basnight and Rand, D-Cumberland, send bills they oppose to committees where won't have a chance to pass.

"You could do that. Do I do that? No, I've never done that," Basnight said. "Do I stop certain bills over time? Yes. Do I speak on what I believe the majority wants? Yes, I do do that."

Basnight characterizes his actions as leadership, adding that other Democrats can vote him out if they don't like it.

"You can't operate without direction. Somebody has to do that," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said someone else should have a chance to exercise such leadership.

"I'm a big believer (that) there should be turnover, and turnover is a good thing," said Berger, R-Rockingham.

Two years ago, he introduced a bill that would have created term limits for both the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore positions. Basnight opposed the bill.

"I think it was sent to the Ways and Means Committee," Berger said of the proposal, noting that the committee hasn't met since 2001.

The bill was then sent to a different committee, he said, but it never came up for discussion.