Yesterday we did a quick dive into the basic elements of the NCGA. In recent years, the process of lawmaking has been changing, and elements of our legislative process that used to be relatively unimportant to voters have become key tools, used by those in power to pass laws without the usual level of scrutiny. Today we are going to be explaining what a conference committee is. Why did we pick this topic? As you may have heard, the entire North Carolina budget for next year is about to be decided by a conference committee, rather than through the standard legislative process.
The NCGA's website explains the purpose of a conference committee. When a bill is passed by one house of the Assembly, and the other house then amends it, the bill is sent back to the first house for another vote on those amendments. If they agree, the bill can be sent to the governor to be signed into law. However, if the house of origin rejects the amendments, a conference committee can be formed. This committee attempts to reconcile the differences between the two houses and come up with an agreed text. This final version of the bill is voted upon in both houses with a straight yes or no vote, with no amendments allowed. If it is rejected, it can be sent back to committee to try again.
So far, so procedural. But, in recent years, this process has been used to pass bills and leave no room for amendments or full debate. Right now, Senate Bill 99 , originally a bill about insurance, has been sent to a conference committee. This bill is likely to become the vehicle for the entirety of the North Carolina budget (and possibly more). The committee is composed entirely of Republicans. The North Carolina budget will not even pass through the Appropriations Committee for deliberation.
Why does this matter? In this particular case, it means that the majority of legislators will have no opportunity to amend the budget. In particular, if you live in a district represented by a Democrat, you will have no voice representing you in the budget process. Almost half of the residents of North Carolina voted Democrat. This represents a huge democratic deficit.
And what else? We know from experience that rushed lawmaking generally leads to poor quality laws. Who in North Carolina doesn't remember HB2? We are living through uniquely polarized times, and bipartisanship can seem like a distant memory, but when laws are passed without proper scrutiny, the state as a whole suffers and our democracy is undermined.
Care about this issue? Make sure you know where candidates in your districts stand when it comes to the legislative process. If you want to make your voice heard right now, you can contact Representative Nelson Dollar, the chair of the conference committee, to express your feelings about the use of this procedure to pass the budget or you can write a letter to the editor of your local paper.
NC Policy Watch: Democrats: Berger-Moore budget process may quash debate, amendments
N&O: Democrats decry 'secretive process' as Republicans craft NC budget