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A lousy way to make some very important and problematic new law

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A lousy way to make some very important and problematic new law

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Rob Schofield
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A lousy way to make some very important and problematic new law
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Illustration by John Cole

Sometimes, you just have to hand it to Republican leaders at the North Carolina General Assembly. When it comes to heavy-handed tactics and turning the serious business of lawmaking into a cynical political game, few do it better.

Over the years, GOP leaders have transformed dozens of legislative proposals into new state laws with a maddening lack of process and sunshine.

Often, this happens when so-called “special provisions” are quietly slipped at the last minute into omnibus budget bills that run to hundreds of pages.

At other times, the process involves hurried adoption of an amendment or a “committee substitute” that completely rewrites a bill that dealt with another subject. Think here of the infamous the 2013 “motorcycle-abortion bill.”

And sometimes, the vehicle of choice is a “conference committee report” – that is, proposed legislation that is supposed to represent a compromise between the House and Senate when the two chambers pass different versions of a bill.

This latter tactic can be especially pernicious because:

  1. conference committees seldom actually meet in public – instead members typically just circulate draft proposals behind closed doors,
  2. once a proposed report accumulates signatures from a majority of conference committee members, it can go right to the Senate and House floor for a final up-or-down vote; no amendments may even be considered, and
  3. as they’ve come to be used, conference committee reports can contain completely new legislation that has nothing to do with earlier versions of the bill.

All three of these latter factors were in play last week when lawmakers advanced an extremely complex and out-of-nowhere proposal to rewrite state campaign finance laws.

The legislation, which would provide wealthy individuals with new ways to give unlimited sums to support North Carolina candidates while keeping their identities hidden, emerged last Thursday as an add-on to a conference committee report on a controversial bill that deals with the subjects of wearing masks in public and the punishments that can be imposed on protesters for certain unlawful actions.

Despite it having emerged just hours earlier and the public having been afforded zero opportunities to provide input, the Senate went ahead and passed the bill without so much as committee hearing – a move that prompted all 20 Senate Democrats to walk out in disgust and protest. Passage in the House could come at any time.

And make no mistake, the bill is a big deal. As veteran campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall detailed in a scathing column for NC Newsline on Monday, the bill would allow big-money donors and PACs to, effectively, launder their contributions to North Carolina candidates through federal “527 committees” which would then redirect them to an “affiliated party committee.”

As Hall and other critics have noted, this new scheme could prove especially useful to Republican gubernatorial nominee Lt Gov. Mark Robinson, who’s been reported to have fundraising challenges thanks some of his extreme positions and statements. With the new scheme in place, a small handful of super wealthy donors who might be embarrassed to be publicly linked to Robinson would have a new way to funnel cash while remaining out of the public eye. And, of course, Democratic candidates would be free to make use of such a tactic as well.

The proposal would also allow PACs to evade the longstanding ban on the making of campaign contributions to lawmakers when the legislature is in session – a move that will almost certainly open the floodgates to the most egregious forms of vote buying on pending legislation.

Between these and other included changes, Hall says, the bill “gives the super-rich and their political allies permission to engage in expansive corruption.”

And it’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

North Carolina campaign finance law has already been significantly weakened since the halcyon days of the early 2000’s when the state enforced strong limits and actually provided public financing to candidates in judicial and select counsel of state races. But if the new legislation becomes law, it will mark a new low in a long steady descent — a point at which the state campaign finance world is transformed into an almost complete free-for-all.

Of course, one of the weird aspects to all this is that Republicans didn’t (and don’t) have to rely on such cover-of-darkness tactics to effect such dramatic change. With supermajorities in both the House and Senate and plenty of time left in the 2024 session, they have the votes necessary to hold committee hearings, consider amendments and allow public comment from experts and concerned citizens.

Unfortunately, in keeping with the substance of the proposal itself, they’ve opted to minimize any public embarrassment and bad P.R. by opting for stealth and speed.

In short, as Hall and other critics have noted, a bill dealing with masks is a sadly appropriate place for a proposal to mask efforts by billionaires to buy our elections. And sadly, for GOP legislative leaders, it’s business as usual.