By Jim Morrill
RALEIGH — In the 1980s, a handful of Democratic legislators met behind closed doors to hammer out North Carolina’s multibillion-dollar budget.
They were known as the “super sub,” for super subcommittee. Critics called them the Gang of Eight.
Over the years budget negotiations opened up, though not consistently – and sometimes, not much. As often as not, key decisions were still made behind closed doors.
Now leading Republican senators say they might let the public in.
“I don’t know that we’ve made a definite decision, but we’re leaning that way,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who chairs the influential Rules Committee. “In my mind, it helps incentivize getting it done. That’s the overwhelming reason for doing it, speeding the process.”
GOP leaders want the process “as open as possible,” added Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Rockingham County.
The Senate and House have to reconcile separate versions of a $21 billion spending plan before sending it on to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. By all accounts, the House and Senate remain far apart, with major differences on issues such as Medicaid funding and teacher pay. Last week, for instance, GOP senators ridiculed a House Republican plan to pay for teacher raises with lottery proceeds.
Just how open negotiations will be is unclear.
Exempt from open meetings law
Senate and House leaders each named their negotiating teams, known as the budget conference committee, last Thursday. The House team alone has 25 members, all but one a Republican.
Formal talks are expected to begin this week. Asked about the Senate’s apparent willingness to open the meetings, House leaders were more restrained.
“I generally don’t have a problem with that,” said Speaker Thom Tillis of Huntersville. Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, who co-chairs the House negotiators, said he hadn’t had a chance to talk with his Senate counterparts.
Unlike regular standing committees on topics such as education or health care, conference committees aren’t subject to the state’s open meetings law, said Gerry Cohen, the General Assembly’s special counsel.
When Democratic lawmakers came under pressure to open their super-sub negotiations in the ’80s, they did so grudgingly, at one point speaking in a sort of code. When he was Speaker, Raleigh Democrat Dan Blue began opening the process.
“It was absolutely appalling that you could spend billions of taxpayer dollars and taxpayers never saw the light of the process,” said Blue, now Senate minority leader.
Some Democrats are skeptical about Republicans’ appetite for openness.
“It’s surprising that after putting together a budget without any public input, suddenly there’s talk about opening the whole thing up,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat in office since 1991.
“If they’ve negotiated all the details and open it just to rubber-stamp it, that’s an empty act, basically a waste of time,” Blue said.
One Senate negotiator, Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw, said GOP senators seem intent on opening the process.
“There’s a pretty fair consensus about going on and opening up to the public,” he said. “We don’t have anything to hide.”
The process of making important decisions could still remain behind closed doors. And in fact some Senate committee leaders already have met with House counterparts.
That wouldn’t surprise Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at UNC Chapel Hill. He expects the big decisions to be made in private.
“While we would all applaud an effort by the state Senate to say all negotiations are open, sooner or later … we’ll end up with key decisions made by key decision-makers,” he said. “When things get stuck, somebody will unstick them.”