Patrick Gannon: NC House stands up to Senate power plays

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 9, 2016

RALEIGH — By the time the General Assembly adjourned in early July, Republican House members were fed up.

Their frustrations weren’t only with legislation considered on the final days of session. They also were irritated with the process by which bills ended up in front of them. They weren’t happy with the Senate, either.

Those frustrations spilled over during debates in a House committee and on the House floor on the session’s final day. In each case, the House stood up to a powerful senator, sending messages that they weren’t participating in political games and questionable process.

The first sign House Republicans’ discontent came during a Finance Committee meeting. If normal procedures were followed, a bill to change the way the city of Jacksonville is allowed to spend room occupancy tax revenues wouldn’t have been in front of the committee. Typically, occupancy tax bills go through a special House subcommittee to determine whether they comply with House guidelines to ensure municipalities don’t abuse their power to raise cash through extra taxes on hotel stays.

House Bill 46, which would have helped Jacksonville build a sports complex, didn’t comply, but it never went to the subcommittee. Its sponsor was powerful Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican, Senate majority leader and that chamber’s chief budget writer. Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican and House Rules chairman, acknowledged openly that the bill was being heard because Brown helped certain House bills move in the Senate.

Brown said senators were frustrated by the House guidelines and that if his bill wasn’t approved, the Senate might stop hearing certain House bills. But Republican committee members argued that passing Brown’s bill would open a slippery slope and wouldn’t be fair to other legislators who followed the occupancy tax guidelines.

Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, said he was bothered by Brown’s comments, inferring “retribution of some sort” if Senate bills didn’t get through the House.

“I ran for office, and I was hoping that my perception that legislation is evaluated on its own merits is the way we pass stuff here and not on the basis of … what type of cooperation we get from the opposite chamber,” Warren said. Brown responded that he thinks it happens on both sides and “it’s a shame it does.”

The committee shot down Brown’s bill, 18-9.

Republican frustration again was on display on the floor later that day as the House considered a bill to create Asheville City Council districts. Its sponsor was Sen. Tom Apodaca.

Other Asheville-area legislators opposed the proposal. Local bills aren’t supposed to be heard in short sessions unless they have unanimous support among the local delegation. But the Asheville bill was deemed an elections bill, rather than a local bill.

Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican who often speaks out about bad process, spoke against the bill in a loud, angry tone and was gaveled down by House Speaker Tim Moore.

“When you start playing these games you do become part of the problem,” Blust said.

Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, insisted the bill was a local bill, and urged fellow legislators to consider how that would feel if such a change would be made in their district without their support. A single, powerful senator shouldn’t be able to draw election districts and force them on the residents of a city of Asheville’s size, he said.

“I just think it’s bad business now, and it would be bad business when it happens in your district,” Speciale said. Speciale was right, and the House did the right thing by killing it 59-47, regardless of the repercussions.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government Service in Raleigh.