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GOP caucus closes doors to meeting with gaming lobbyists

Posted February 10, 2011 4:42 p.m. EST
Updated February 10, 2011 5:17 p.m. EST

@NCCapitol

— 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.”

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.”