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It's Time to Rethink the Legislative 'Short Session'

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - A few weeks ago the N.C. General Assembly opened its doors for something it calls the legislative “short session.” 

Unlike the regular sessions held in odd-numbered years, short sessions are supposed to be limited affairs. They were originally designed for making budget adjustments and handling some less-controversial measures. Big policy debates and major legislation were to be left for the long sessions.

N.C. Legislative Building

Recently short sessions have not been living up to their name. Over the last four sessions we have seen adjournments creep from mid July to late August. With no constitutionally specified limit on how long legislative sessions last, it’s anyone’s guess how long this short session will be.

As our state transforms from a sparsely populated rural economy to a fast-growing hub of 21st-century technology, the issues that the General Assembly must tackle are becoming increasingly complex.

A legislature that essentially meets every other year may have been fitting when commerce moved at the speed of a mule. But in today’s world there is too much happening, too many challenges to face, for our representatives to convene only every now and again.

Given the increasing complexity of legislation and the difficulties in designing a two-year budget when business cycles are less than three months, what was once an opportunity to tie up loose ends is now a full-fledged deliberative session.

Despite the fact that short sessions are looking more like regular sessions, we still cling to old rules designed to keep short sessions short. In order for a bill to be considered in the short session it must either “directly and primarily” affect the budget or have already passed one legislative chamber the previous year. 

These rules aren’t keeping the sessions short, but they are obfuscating the legislative process.  The power brokers in the legislature often use the short session rules to squelch an idea, but can always find their way around them for a favored piece of legislation.

The power to abuse these rules is with legislative leaders, not the rank-and-file lawmaker. Most members want to get out of Raleigh and back to their district as soon as possible. Elections are rapidly approaching and they are anxious to return home to begin campaigning. And with the exception of a per diem to cover some travel costs, there isn’t any additional pay to be had for serving well into the summer. 

Time has come for a complete overhaul of the rules around legislative sessions.  Let’s own up to the fact that there really is no difference between a long and a short session. Perhaps some more continuity and predictability in the process would result in better legislation.

For starters, we should move to an annual budgeting process. With so much volatility in our economy it makes sense to plan every year. We should also rid ourselves of the arbitrary distinction between short and long sessions. Instead of meeting for several months one year and several weeks the next, a regular session should be held every year.

Our government is going to face many challenges in the future. Coping with the demands of growth and a changing economy require our legislators to think of innovative ways for government to function. The public’s ever-increasing desire for services and decreasing appetite for taxes mean we need to be planning every year for the best ways to spend our collective resources.

Updating the way the General Assembly convenes won’t make these challenges go away, but it can give our lawmakers an opportunity to tackle today’s pressing problems without being hamstrung by yesterday’s outmoded customs.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.