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With a New Session, a Chance for More Sunlight in the Legislature

By Brent Laurenz

RALEIGH - On Jan. 30 the state legislature will reconvene in Raleigh to begin this year’s legislative work in earnest after holding a brief, one-day session to elect officers and adopt rules earlier this month. Interestingly, approximately one-third of the entire legislature will be serving their first term. That makes for a lot of new faces in the House and Senate, and maybe a lot of people unfamiliar with the old way of doing things.

The old way of doing things, both when Democrats and Republicans were in charge, too often meant the legislature conducted its business behind closed doors or in the dead of night, away from the pesky, prying eyes of voters who sent them there. Perhaps the most infamous occasion during the last biennium was the “midnight session” in January of 2012.

The so-called “midnight session” got its name because lawmakers had returned to the capital for a single day to take up specific business, but once that task was completed the parliamentary shenanigans began. Rules were tweaked and the legislature officially reconvened after midnight to take up new business and passed controversial legislation around one in the morning. All of this was done with no advance notice to the public.

There have been countless examples of these political games over the years, games that do a disservice to North Carolina voters who deserve to know what’s happening in state government. Hopefully this year we’ll see a little more sunlight in the General Assembly and the people’s business won’t be conducted behind closed doors. We would all benefit from that.

As part of my hope for a more open, transparent government in 2013, let’s also hope they do away with the flurry of legislative action right before adjournment. The General Assembly will be in Raleigh for at least four months this year, if not more, which strikes me as plenty of time to debate the issues and pass legislation before the eleventh hour.

Too often, though, as the session winds down legislators are in the chamber until two or three in the morning trying their best to wrap up before it’s time to adjourn. Not only does this necessitate working late into the night, but legislation moves so fast in these waning hours that it often doesn’t get the scrutiny and deliberation it deserves. In this environment bills aren’t read, they just get passed.

Instead of scrambling to finish everything up right at the end, why not take a more deliberate, systematic approach to ensure every important issue is given the attention and consideration it deserves. We all know legislatures need deadlines to get anything done – the fiscal cliff debate in Congress reinforced that – but that doesn’t mean it’s the best, or only, way to run our government.

So my hope, and humble request, for this year’s legislature is that they be deliberate, accessible to the public and transparent to all citizens of North Carolina. Shining some sunlight in the halls of the General Assembly can only be a positive for voters, which is who lawmakers will answer to in the end anyway. Besides, as they say, nothing good happens after midnight.

Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.