A prime example of how sausage and laws are made in the General Assembly
Published August 6, 2020
By Andy Jackson
The American poet, John Godfrey Saxe* once said “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
The North Carolina General Assembly just gave us a prime example of legislative sausage-making, although most people would probably like the final product of that process.
S217 was introduced on March 11 of last year by senators Earl Britt (R-Columbus, Robeson), Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell), and Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) as a bi-partisan attempt to numerically align judicial and prosecutorial districts. As seen in figure 1, the bulk of the version of the bill reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee consisted of simply renaming some of the state prosecutorial districts.
Figure 1: Detail of the version of S217 that passed the NC Senate on March 27, 2019. Source: NCGA
The three-page bill unanimously passed the Senate on March 27, 2019.
The bill then spent a few months in committee limbo in the House before being reported out of the House Committee on the Judiciary. The committee changed some of the district numbers from the Senate bill, and also included the composition of those districts (precincts and census blocks, see figure 2). That version of the bill ballooned from 3 pages to 32 pages.
Figure 2: Detail of the version of S217 that passed the House, which included the composition of the districts: VTDs (precincts) and census blocks (parts of precincts). Source: NCGA
The new version of the bill unanimously passed the House on June 16, 2019. However, the Senate unanimously rejected the House version of the bill a week later.
Since the two chambers of the General Assembly passed different versions of the bill, they appointed a conference committee on July 26, 2019, consisting of three Republican members from each chamber’s judiciary committee, including the two Republican sponsors.
And then… nothing.
No actions were taken on the bill for the remainder of the 2019 session or most of the 2020 short session. The conference committee finally issued its report on June 23, 2020, nearly a year after the committee was formed. The report recommended that the General Assembly delete the version of the bill passed by the house ten months earlier and adopt a substitute from the committee.
Figure 3: Detail of June 23, 2020 conference committee report on S217. Source: NCGA
So, was the conference committee’s version of the bill closer to the House version or the Senate version?
Instead, the committee completely removed any reference to judicial and prosecutorial districts from the bill. They also changed the name of the bill. The only thing that did not change was its designation (S217). The new version of the bill was just a quarter of a page long and simply allowed people collecting unemployment to work at early voting sites and at election day precinct polling places without it affecting their benefits (see figure 4). It is a logical response to both high unemployment and a possible shortage of election workers due to the coronavirus.
Figure 4: Full text of the final version of S217, changed to deal with election work and unemployment benefits. Source NCGA
So why not just create a new bill on election work and unemployment benefits? Per legislative rules, it was too late in the session to introduce a new bill on that matter. To get around that, legislators took a bill that was already in the hopper and repurposed it.
In keeping with the history of unanimous votes on this bill, the new version of the passed both the Senate and the House unanimously on June 25. It was signed by Governor Cooper a week later.
As with a good sausage, the process wasn’t pretty but the result was satisfying.
*The laws and sausages quote is often mistakenly attributed to Otto von Bismark.