Patrick Gannon: ‘Mostly meaningless debate’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 26, 2015

RALEIGH – When the House finished more than eight hours of debate on its $22 billion budget late last week, many listeners had to wonder what of any consequence had been accomplished.

First, most of the discussion came well after dinner time Thursday, when most state taxpayers whose hard-earned money was being spent are putting kids to bed, watching their favorite shows or sleeping. The second and final vote came at about 1:15 a.m. Friday, as most of the state slept.

“Why make speeches at 1:00 AM I don’t get it!” tweeted Rep. Ken Goodman, a Richmond County Democrat, just before the final vote.

Second, the vast majority of the talk centered around dozens of amendments, most of which had very little impact on the overall spending plan in terms of dollars and little effect on the vast majority of North Carolinians’ everyday lives.

One hour of debate, for example, was consumed by two proposed changes. The first, which didn’t pass, would have ended the highly controversial renewable energy tax credit program at the end of this year. Solar energy is an important topic, to be certain, but this debate would have been better left for normal business hours during any of the other days of the months-long legislative long session.

Another lengthy discussion took place about a proposed $1 million grant program to help convenience stores buy refrigerators and other equipment so they can stock fruits and vegetables in so-called “food deserts,” where people don’t have easy access to healthy foods. That amendment passed. It’s another topic that’s generating discussion these days, but $1 million represents 0.005 percent of the spending plan, and the debate should have been left to legislative committees at a more appropriate time.

Another 20 minutes was consumed deciding whether a Department of Revenue call center should remain open in Rocky Mount. The 120-member chamber also debated amendments about such topics as charter schools, mental health, investing by the state treasurer, agriculture fairs, eugenics and the lottery.

The amendment debates dragged on until shortly before midnight Thursday, leaving just 15 minutes for  discussion on the actual spending plan before the first vote. Budget votes must take place on two separate days, so not taking a vote by midnight Thursday would have required legislators to remain in Raleigh until Saturday.

Three Democrats and one Republican were given time to speak on the budget before the Republican was cut off so the vote could be recorded on Thursday.

The House came back shortly after midnight and considered several additional amendments before another short period of debate on the merits of the $22 billion plan.

The House has been in session since January. Perhaps its most important job of the legislative session didn’t have to take place in the middle of the night. And it didn’t have to be dominated by debate over mostly mundane topics, with little time for what’s really important.

In the end, 23 House members – 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans – voted no. We didn’t hear from a single Republican who voted against it.

Yes, it was a strong, bipartisan vote in favor of the budget for the next two years. But even if you listened to hours of the debate, which you probably didn’t, it would be hard to understand why.

Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.