Not over until its over

Published September 14, 2015

By D. G. Martin

by D. G. Martin, One on One and Host, NC Bookwatch on UNC-TV, September 13, 2015.

Are the legislators really going home soon?


Over the weekend at the UNC-Chapel Hill vs. N.C. A&T football game, House Speaker Tim Moore was all smiles as he confirmed news reports that legislative leaders had struck a budget deal that could lead to passage of a state budget this week.

Getting a two-year budget for the period that began July 1 is the one thing that the legislature has to do before it goes home. Once the budget passes and is signed by the governor, everything else can wait until next year.

At least theoretically.

Actually, there are many unfinished agendas that could be competing for attention in the time after the budget passes. Dealing with them could take days and weeks.

The scrambling might make for a messy business. Remember the old maxim, attributed to the German Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.”

Winston Churchill put it a different way, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Not everyone is so put off by the “messy” way representative government works. For instance, the late Jay Robinson, my mentor and predecessor as vice president of public affairs of the UNC-System, loved the give and take, the personalities, the different aspirations, and the strong egos that make legislatures so much like sausage factories. He liked it best in hectic times during the last days of each session when so many matters are finally settled. He put it this way, “Oh, it is terrible. Everybody is telling lies, putting a knife in other peoples' backs, running around and scrambling for the last dollar. It is just awful.”

Then he would look up and say, “But that is when I like it the best.”

As long as the legislature stays in session, it has the power to change just about anything as far as state government is concerned.  It can raise or lower taxes. It can abolish government offices and programs. It can cut or increase budgets. It can establish new rules of operation. And, of course, it can change the decisions made by government officials, or even some of the actions it took earlier in the session.

While the legislature is in session in Raleigh, it looks over the shoulders of every state government official.  Therefore, government officials sometimes defer making difficult and controversial decisions until after the legislature goes home.

It is not just government officials who suffer from a long legislative session.  Every citizen is affected by the uncertainty that accompanies an ongoing legislative session.  In the old days people used to say that "no person's property is safe while the legislature is in session."

That worry has not kept North Carolina’s legislature from gradually, over the years, lengthening the time their members spend in Raleigh

The current session, for instance, seems destined to last into the fall season, and even beyond should the governor veto the budget.

Arguably, we already have a full-time legislature. But there are other good reasons to try to retain or get back a part-time assembly. With a citizen legislature we stand a better chance of avoiding the creation of a class of people who look at the legislature as a place to work rather than a place to perform public service.  We stand a better chance of persuading people to take a few months off from their work at home to go Raleigh to serve.  If the legislature meets only for a few months, these people could spend most of their time back home staying in touch with the problems and concerns of the people they represent.

I like it better when they are home.