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Senate passes controversial merger of ethics, elections boards

Posted December 15, 2016 1:58 p.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2016 4:34 p.m. EST

— The state Senate has signed off on legislation that creates a single board to oversee the state's ethics, lobbying and elections administration.

Republican sponsors insist it is aimed at creating a bipartisan panel to oversee all decisions on lobbying, elections and ethics rules. But that eight-member board would need six votes to take any action, something critics say would bog it down and make it less able to act.

"That will require bipartisan cooperation," said Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union. The idea, he said, would be to encourage consensus decisions.

The measure passed 30-16 and is now headed to the House for consideration.

Deliberations were interrupted by protestors who at various times laughed, clapped or expressed disapproval. After a third interruption, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest ordered the visitor's gallery cleared. That provoked an even louder outburst followed by chanting once the doors were finally locked.

The bill is one of several measures that Democrats have criticized as a way to take power from incoming Gov. Roy Cooper. Under current law, Cooper would appoint members of the State Board of Elections and be able to give it a 3-2 partisan tilt toward the Democrats, reversing the 3-2 Republican majority appointed by outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory.

"It's really transparent and really clear that the simple purpose of this bill is to undercut the power and authority of Gov.-elect Roy Cooper before he takes the oath of office on Jan. 1," Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said. "It's clear. It's transparent. It's obvious. Even Stevie Wonder could see this."

Sen. Jane Smith, D-Columbus, said she was bothered that lawmakers were called to Raleigh under the guise of a special session to assist Hurricane Matthew flood victims but now were handling unrelated bills.

"It now seems to me the hurricane session was just a ruse to get us here," Smith said.

Republicans have denied accusations of a partisan "power grab" and instead said they were taking advantage of an opportunity during the transition between McCrory and Cooper to makes changes good for both parties.

They pointed to occasions in the 1970s and 1980s when Democrats moved to strip Republican officials of power and appointments.

"You guys act like we're the worst guys in the world," said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow. "But we can't even touch what you guys did."

During a morning committee meeting, bill backers said the measure could be tweaked if it turned out to be unworkable.

"If this grand bipartisan experiment fails, then the General Assembly can change it to something that works," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, told the Senate Redistricting Committee.

But even advocacy groups that generally approve of bipartisan or nonpartisan efforts said they were troubled with the rushed process used to bring the bill forward.

"Citizens who are interested in this barely saw the bill last night as they got home from work," said Jane Pinsky, director of North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. "There hasn't been ample discussion of all parts of the bill."