Early in the special legislative session last Wednesday called by Gov. Pat McCrory for disaster relief, House Rules Chair David Lewis responded on the House floor to a question about the rules governing the session by saying House leaders were trying to be “as transparent as they can.”
That was, simply put, a lie.
Two days before—on Monday—Lewis, House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Phil Berger, and other Republican lawmakers signed a letter to call another special session when the disaster relief session adjourned to ram through legislation to take power away from the new Democratic governor and to remake the structure of state government on the fly.
They never bothered to tell the Democrats, the media, or the public about their scheme.
Then twenty-eight bills were filed in the secretly planned and unprecedented special session and most of them take authority away from Cooper and the newly Democratic Supreme Court and give it to Republicans including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, and legislative leaders themselves who will now have the authority to confirm Cooper’s cabinet appointees.
Legislation would also change the oversight of elections, significantly reduce the power of the State Board of Education, change the way appeals courts operate, and change the rules for the Industrial Commission that hears cases affecting workers injured on the job.
All of this and more was filed with no notice to the public or even to all the members of the legislature. Democrats asked Republican leaders repeatedly why the additional special session was called and never received an answer, other than members had issues they wanted to consider.
When Speaker Moore was asked how much the additional session would cost, he said there would be no extra expense on Wednesday since the General Assembly was already here for the disaster relief efforts.
In other words legislative leaders figured they were in town to help disaster victims, so they might as well grab more power for themselves while they were there.
A few weeks ago Senator Bob Rucho said the decision by a federal court to order the redrawing of 28 legislative districts and an election in 2017 to fill them would undo the will of the voters, which didn’t make any sense since the court had already found the districts were unconstitutional.
This week Rucho is leading the charge to actually thwart the will of the voters by taking power away from the people voters elected in November as governor and Supreme Court justice.
Republicans are defending the unprecedented last minute power grab by claiming that Democrats did it too—30 to 40 years ago. One of the episodes they cited was in 1988 when Democrats took legislative powers away from Republican Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner and gave them to the Democratic Senate President Pro Tem.
None of the Republican proposals in the special session would restore the powers by taking them away from current Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. But this isn’t about history anyway. It is 2016 and the voters elected a Democratic governor and expect more from legislative leaders than efforts to settle decades-old scores.
And there has never been a last minute special session called with 28 bills filed to remake state government.
Cooper for his part calls the arrogant display from the Republicans more than a partisan power grab and he is right.
Raleigh will never be the same. The rules and traditions in state government mean virtually nothing now and apparently neither do the obligations of lawmakers in a democracy to let the people they represent know what they are doing.
Election results have become annoyances to work around, not binding decisions by the people.
It all brings to mind the familiar quote by Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The behavior of the General Assembly this week is proof of that and also makes you think that Lord Acton forgot a line.
Some people in power will go to extraordinary means to maintain every bit of it, even in a democracy where the voters are supposed to make the final decisions.
House and Senate leaders callously and arrogantly brushed aside the will of the voters this week. It was cynical, undemocratic, outrageous, and yes, corrupt—absolutely.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of NC Policy Watch.