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Patrick Gannon: How unwanted laws pass

RALEIGH — In the General Assembly, proposals become laws only if endorsed by a majority of House and Senate members, right? In a perfect world, that would be true.

The world isn’t perfect, and it’s possible that controversial laws make it into statute without majorities of both chambers behind them.

Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, explained several ways that can happen as House members debated the chamber’s rules for the 2015 session last week. Both chambers adopt rules each session to guide how they do business.

Blust, in General Assembly for the better part of two decades, speaks out when he sees the political process devolve into questionable tactics. He’s not afraid to rock the boat, even with his political party at the helm.

Blust wanted the House rules to prevent maneuvers legislators employ to avoid separate votes on controversial proposals.

One way this happens is when unrelated provisions are merged into one bill. In such situations, legislators might like parts of a bill and dislike others, yet are forced to vote yes or no on the entire thing.

An example of this is the recent “gas tax” bill. The bill wasn’t only about stabilizing the gas tax rate to ensure enough dollars remain available for road maintenance and construction. It also included controversial provisions that force homeowners facing foreclosure to pay state taxes if debt is forgiven by their lenders, a provision Democrats deemed “unconscionable” because it could require people struggling financially to fork over thousands in taxes.

That bill, which passed, put legislators in the frustrating position of having to vote in favor of or against both parts.

Last week, Blust proposed an amendment to the House rules to allow members to petition to divide such bills and vote on each part separately. He argued that proposals can be swept into law the elected representatives don’t want to be there, which he deemed “sort of an affront to the entire institution.”

Blust’s idea was voted down, as House leaders pointed out other ways provisions can be removed from bills, such as through the typical amendment process.

Another way laws without majority support can become law is by insertion into the state budget. That way, they often don’t receive full debate and don’t have to get through both chambers as standalone bills. Last year’s budget, for example, contained 260 pages of so-called “special provisions,” or new laws written into the budget document. In 2013, the budget contained 394 pages of provisions, including the new letter-grade system for public schools and the controversial formula through which those grades are determined.

“Many things that would not pass the House are put into the budget and passed into law and that is an affront to the whole constitutional setup of a bicameral legislature,” Blust commented.

Blust’s amendment to change that also failed. Of course, those who disagree with certain provisions of a budget can vote against the whole thing, but that’s easier said than done. The final versions of budgets come before lawmakers after weeks or months of negotiations among House and Senate leaders, with concessions from both chambers. Sometimes those concessions involve adding provisions that one chamber or the other hasn’t had the opportunity to debate and might not support.

Also, few lawmakers would vote against a budget simply because they don’t like one or two provisions — especially if doing so would prolong the legislative session. So they hold their noses and vote for it.

There may be legitimate reasons why Blust’s specific proposals to improve the process aren’t the right fix. But there is no good reason why controversial proposals should make it into law without support from a majority of the members of the House and Senate.

“What is a legislature if things become the law of the state that the legislature doesn’t really want?” Blust asked.

Great question.

Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.

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