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Tom Campbell: Do we even need a legislature?

By Tom Campbell

After hearing what is apparently taking place in our General Assembly, we have to ask why we even need 170 members in the General Assembly?

We could save millions of dollars, free up lots of office space and greatly simplify state government if we permanently furloughed 150 or more of them. They obviously are not needed.

That whooshing sound you hear coming from Raleigh is the budget freight train racing nonstop through our legislature. Lawmakers are about to pass a $23.9 billion state budget with no input from rank-and-file members, no hearings and no opportunity to amend it.

The spending plan was agreed upon by a handful behind closed doors and, to guarantee speedy passage, a questionable maneuver will be employed so that there’s no chance for amendments or meaningful debate.

The maneuver is known as “stripping a bill.” Here’s how it works: the language of an insurance bill, already passed in slightly different versions by each chamber of the legislature, will be completely stripped of previous content, replaced by the entire budget for the coming year. The stripped bill will then be presented as a conference report, meaning it cannot be amended and rank-and-file legislators have only two options: vote for the conference report as presented or defeat it.

It won’t be defeated, because that would require Republican members to turn against their own leadership. They may not like what’s happening, but they don’t have the courage to do defeat it.

Republican lawmakers know that next year, if the GOP retains control of both houses (a likely scenario), their Judas-like betrayal will be rewarded by lousy committee assignments and the surety that no legislation they propose will see the light of day.

They are all standing for re-election this fall, and the GOP caucus often provides needed campaign funding. When they solicit your vote, ask them if they are proud of what they did.

This stripping maneuver has been used before, but to use such a trick to pass the entire budget is unprecedented and makes North Carolina state government appear to be little more than a banana republic.

It should enrage every voter, regardless of your party preference.

I come from an era where crafting a state budget was a big deal. Appropriations subcommittees in each chamber laboriously considered spending requests in public hearings, finally voting out budget recommendations that were passed along to the larger appropriations committee.

After further debate and passage by the big appropriations committee, the final package was brought to the floor of the chamber, where it was again debated, sometimes amended, and voted upon by the 120 members of the House or 50 members of the Senate.

After passing one house, the bill went to the other chamber, where it was once again scrutinized, amendments were made and voted upon. Differences between the two versions were ironed out in a conference committee and then brought to the floor of each chamber for a final, up-or-down vote.

The process required statesmanship, compromise and a bipartisan camaraderie unknown today. Top leaders in each chamber had a large voice in the final version, but rank-and-file members were respected and their votes counted.

My sources tell me this is outrageous budget trick is going to happen. We should be shouting from rooftops that this is a shameful way to run state government.

If it goes through as anticipated, you have all the proof you need that we don’t need most of the 170 lawmakers in our General Assembly.

Send them home.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is host of “NC Spin,” a weekly television show that airs on UNC-TV main channel at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 12:30 p.m. Sunday. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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