Column: ‘Sunshine Act’ gets middle finger in legislature
by Colin Campbell
RALEIGH – The N.C. House has taken a long overdue step toward transparency, voting unanimously to add online video streaming of its sessions – so North Carolinians across the state can watch their government in action without driving to Raleigh.
The legislature currently offers online audio streams of sessions and most committee meetings. But when you can’t actually see the proceedings, it can be difficult to follow the action and tell who’s speaking. Making video available live and on-demand will give voters a better understanding of what happens at the legislature.
House leaders deserve praise for making this a priority. But they’re missing an opportunity for more sweeping reforms to make it easier for average citizens to keep track of important policy debates.
Last week, Rep. Ray Russell, D-Watauga, and a couple dozen House Democrats filed the “North Carolina Sunshine Act.” House Speaker Tim Moore immediately gave the proposal the legislative equivalent of a middle finger, all but ensuring the ideas will never see the light of a House floor debate and vote.
Russell’s bill shouldn’t be controversial. It also calls for expanded broadcasts of sessions and committee meetings, but it goes further by changing the legislature’s rules to keep controversial proposals from getting rammed through in the dark of night.
Russell wants to give lawmakers a 9 p.m. curfew, ending the practice of marathon sessions that sometimes stretch past 4 a.m. I’ve watched those sessions, and most legislators are too tired to even know what they’re voting on, which is exactly why General Assembly leaders do it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re televising the proceedings – a proposal that gets rolled out for a vote at 2:30 a.m. won’t get the public notice it deserves.
The rest of the Russell’s bill is common sense: All votes would need to be scheduled with public notice at least 24 hours in advance, and legislators who attach special provisions and pork projects to the state budget would need to sign their names to the provisions.
But rather than holding an intelligent debate on the Sunshine Act, Moore assigned the measure to a dozen committees. Some weren’t even relevant to the legislation, and the norm for bills is two to four committee hearings. A cheeky staffer for House leaders told WRAL News that the extra committee assignments was because it “needs ample time in the sunshine.”
But the move sends a clear message to Russell – and anyone struggling to keep up with legislative action that affects their lives – “we don’t need your stinkin’ sunshine and transparency.” The proposal will almost certainly die in darkness.
I’ll admit I’m biased toward the Sunshine Act because Russell based his proposals in part on transparency recommendations I made in this column space last year. But it would be unfair for me to suggest that the legislature is the only branch of government with a transparency problem.
The executive branch could use some sunshine too. Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, like previous governors before him, is notoriously slow to respond to public records requests. It took my NC Insider colleague months to get the governor’s office to cough up a simple schedule of who the governor meets with.
Questions from journalists to Cooper’s spokespeople often generate either a canned statement of vague platitudes or complete silence. Cooper’s office ignored inquiries from me about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for a month, evidently unwilling to answer questions or even give a simple “no comment.”
Cooper needs to do better in following the state’s public records law. But he could consider going even further to educate the public about his administration and the state agencies he oversees: Open his cabinet meetings to the public.
And the judicial branch could benefit from following the example of House leadership: Why not stream audio and video of oral arguments at the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals? Voters are responsible for electing these influential judges, but very few of us have ever seen them in action or understand how the appellate courts work.
State government has lots of dark corners. It’s high time our leaders let the sunshine in.