Patrick Gannon: ‘Gut and amend’ popular tactic late in session

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 28, 2016

RALEIGH — A wise person once said that thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions and actions lead to habits.

Of course, habits can be good or bad, and politicians can develop them, too, through their actions.

Take the “gut and amend” tactic of making laws, for example. That’s when a bill that’s still eligible in a legislative session and has passed some procedural hurdles is stripped of its original contents somewhere along the line and new language – often serving an entirely different purpose – is added behind the scenes.

Then the new proposal, which few people have seen, is rolled out in a General Assembly committee and often approved within minutes to go to the House or Senate floor for a vote. Rarely in these situations is adequate time given to hear from opponents and proponents of the proposal.

It’s a habit that’s developed over the years in the state legislature, with Democrats and now Republicans in charge, and North Carolina’s lawmakers are addicted. The “gut and amend” process all but ensures the new language gets less scrutiny than it would if it had to go through the normal legislative process.

California lawmakers have suffered from the same addiction, causing outcry from good government groups there. According to a recent news release from California Common Cause, “no non-emergency legislation is so important that it justifies bypassing public review.” Public review, the group said, “serves not only to stop measures that may in fact subvert the public interest, but also to ensure new policies will work well for the greatest number of people.”

The group also said that the end – a new law – doesn’t justify the means, when such means is “founded upon secrecy, the violation of normal and open legislative process, and inadequate public involvement.” In other words, even good policy shouldn’t be marred by bad procedure.

Back in North Carolina, House and Senate calendars have been filled with bills as legislators work to finish their short session. But the bills that appear on committee calendars are being gutted and amended so often that it’s next to impossible for reporters and others to decide which committee meetings to attend. We can’t be in two places at once either.

Should I go to the committee expected to consider an inconsequential bill about jury duty, which I don’t know is about to become a highly controversial bill to punish cities financially if they don’t enforce immigration laws?

Or should I go to the committee that’s supposed to hear a bill about aircraft repairs, which I don’t know is about to become a bill giving cemeteries more freedom to sell extra land. Or maybe I’ll hit the committee with the bill about dealer license plates, which I don’t know is about to become a bill allowing handlers of service animals to keep them upon their retirements. These are just three of many examples of “gut and amend” this session. More are sure to come.

Imagine how the public feels when people who spend every day at the Legislative Building have trouble keeping up.

Legislators don’t appear willing or able to break themselves of their habit anytime soon.

Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, expressed concern on the House floor recently about so many bills being stripped and changed at the last minute.

“We need to look at them closely,” he said.

The response from House Speaker Tim Moore: “The chair will point out that it probably will get worse before it gets better.”

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and the Senate Rules chairman, shrugged it off. “It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?” Apodaca told reporters. “It just lets you know it’s almost time to go home.”

The need and desire to gut and amend so many bills this late in the session shows that the legislature is disorganized at best and secretive and deceptive at worst.

A wise person once said bad habits die hard. Clearly, that’s the case here.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at