A place for common ground

A place for common ground

- in Fitzsimon File

The new Republican majorities in the General Assembly elected two weeks ago come to town with a rigid right-wing agenda that doesn't seem to leave much room for common ground with progressive legislators and advocates in Raleigh.

But there is one place that the two ideological sides might be able to work together, on the Republican promises to open up the legislative process and take the partisanship out of redistricting.

Republicans and good government advocates have long supported the creation of an independent redistricting commission to draw the lines for legislative and congressional districts. The idea is that politicians shouldn't choose their voters, voters should choose their politicians. Several states already have an independent redistricting commission, and North Carolina should follow suit.

Bills calling for an independent commission have been introduced every session, but most Democrats have resisted the idea and have been unwilling to even consider giving up the power to draw district lines. Republican legislative leaders complained mightily about the plans that were approved and to their credit many of them signed on to bills calling for the independent commission. 

Twenty House Republicans co-sponsored legislation to do that in 2009, including the leading candidates for Speaker next session, Minority Leader Paul Stam and Republican Whip Thom Tillis. Fourteen of the Senate's 20 Republicans co-sponsored an independent redistricting bill last session, including Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, who will almost certainly be elected the President Pro Tem when the Senate convenes in January.

But some of the Republicans are now claiming that there's no time to set up a commission this year and they are inclined instead to pass legislation to create one for the next time districts will be redrawn, the 2021 General Assembly. Past bills to create the independent commission called for a constitutional amendment to go before the voters and it is true there's no time for that since the districts have to be drawn this year.

But there's nothing to stop the House and Senate from creating a bipartisan commission by statute early in the session and letting the commission develop district plans that lawmakers can approve or reject.

That's not a perfect solution but it would fulfill the spirit of the Republicans longtime call to reduce the heavy-handed partisanship in drawing districts and give legislators more time this year to focus their attention on the $3.5 billion budget shortfall.

The Republicans 100 day agenda promoted during the campaign promises an end to pay to play politics in the state, and that too is music to the ears of the reform community. Legislation championed by Gov. Beverly Perdue last year was a good place to start, but lawmakers need to go further to make sure that people who contribute to political campaigns are not rewarded with contracts with state government or other special considerations.

The legislative process itself is another place where Republicans can expect support from the reform community if they follow through on their promises. That should mean no more secret budget meetings, no more non-budget provisions in the budget bills, no more cutting off debate before members of the minority party have been fully heard, and no rushed meetings on the House or Senate floor that are impossible to monitor.

There's plenty more and much of it is wrapped up in what may seem from the outside to be arcane matters of legislative rules and committee structures. But they are important.

Opening up the process will take big changes and minor ones to make sure that every legislator has the chance to participate fully and that the public has the opportunity to follow what their representatives are doing in Raleigh.

That's what members of the new majorities promised and it's the right thing to do.