The most important thing the legislature did this year is what it did not do.
Instead of adjourning and closing down as is customary shortly after the state’s budget has been revised, the legislators resolved to stay in session indefinitely, coming back from time to time to respond to emergencies, to vote on various matters, and to work out a plan to deal with Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.
Maybe that sounds like a reasonable plan to you.
Here is the problem. When the legislature is still in session, government officials and workers spend much of their time looking over their shoulders and wondering what will happen next. They cannot concentrate on following the directions the legislature has already given them while still wondering what the legislators might do the next day. Until the legislature adjourns, these government officials and other people whose living depends on getting the government to do something for them will be plotting, conjuring up ways to get the legislature to take some action that benefits them.
Even if the body is not meeting every day, this whole mess of people gather around the legislative building and continue to work, not unlike what one observer said, like pigs at feeding time.
Until 1974, the legislature met, biennially, ordinarily for only one session in odd numbered years. If we still followed that custom, our legislature would have finished its work in 2013, gone home, and stayed until after the fall election.
The 1974 extra session was meant to be short, primarily to adjust the budget to take account of unexpected changes in revenues, not for the consideration of new legislation. But over time most of the restrictions have melted away so that North Carolina has, in effect, two full annual legislative sessions, rather than the pre-1974 biennial sessions.
What difference does it make? Here are some of the advantages of the old system of biennial sessions as summarized by The Conference of State Legislators:
• There are enough laws. Biennial sessions constitute a safeguard against precipitate and unseemly legislative action.
• Yearly meetings of the legislature will contribute to legislative harassment of the administration and its agencies.
• The interval between sessions may be put to good advantage by individual legislators and interim study commissions, since there is never sufficient time during a session to study proposed legislation.
• The biennial system affords legislators more time to renew relations with constituents, to mend political fences and to campaign for reelection.
• Annual sessions inevitably lead to a spiraling of legislative costs, for the legislators and other assembly personnel are brought together twice as often.
Having already given up these advantages beginning in 1974, the legislature has now taken another important step towards a full-time legislature, one that never adjourns, one that will be a permanent presence in Raleigh. A full-time legislature will demand full-time staffs and full-time salaries.
Why do legislators want to be in Raleigh for a longer time?
Former university president Dick Spangler, responding to questions about why the legislature stayed in session so long, explained by asking a question, “Why would a legislator want to go home where he or she would be treated like an ordinary human being? They can stay in Raleigh and be treated like kings and queens. Why go home?”
The change to a full-time legislature might be gradual, as was the shift from biennial to annual sessions, but there will be no going back.
Mark Twain said, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”
In North Carolina, that is going to mean all the time.
By establishing the precedent of staying in session indefinitely, this legislature’s failure to adjourn was its most important action this year.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon (preempted Aug. 17) and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.