Fitzsimon: Republicans’ closed-door start to session is telling

The 2015 session of the General Assembly doesn’t officially convene until next Wednesday but Republican legislative leaders have already set a troubling tone for the session with their decision to meet this week behind closed doors in Kannapolis to discuss education policy and listen to right-wing advocates opine on the subject.

The News & Observer reports that only Republicans were invited to the six-hour event where the presenters included education privatization advocates from the John Locke Foundation, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, and something called the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in California.

The Fitzsimon File by Chris Fitzsmon

The Fitzsimon File
by Chris Fitzsmon

House Speaker Tim Moore defended the closed door meeting by saying it gives “House members and senators the chance to hear from experts and see where the two bodies agree.”

Only Republican members are entitled to that opportunity. Moore seems to have forgotten that voters elected Democrats to the House and Senate too. They are also part of the two legislative bodies that should have the opportunity to agree on policies for the state.

And the Republicans are only hearing from groups that are already aligned with the Republicans’ ideology. No reason apparently to listen to people who may have different ideas and might challenge the free market education dogma of the leadership.

Moore also told the News & Observer that Republicans need to make sure they were “messaging properly” on education, though adequately funding public schools might make the messaging challenges easier.

Beyond the ideological concerns of who Republicans are listening to in their closed door meeting, the event sends a couple of troubling signals about the upcoming legislative session.

For the last several years, lawmakers from both political parties have attended meetings on education held by the Hunt Institute, a widely respected think tank created by former Governor Jim Hunt. And the Institute has invited them again this year.

Reportedly, part of the motivation for the closed-door Republican-only education meeting in Kannapolis was to snub the Hunt Institute because of the role former Governor Hunt played trying to help Democrats in last November’s election.

But the election is over and we ought to expect our political leaders to rise above this sort of pettiness when it comes to deliberating on major issues facing North Carolina like protecting and improving our public education system.

And then there’s the whole idea of Republicans from the House and Senate, meeting together in private to make decisions, seeing where they agree, without the public or even all legislators having the chance to part of the discussion.

Maybe they should extend the meeting by a couple of days and pass a state budget while they are at it.

The fact that Moore himself is such an enthusiastic supporter of the closed door meeting doesn’t bode well for how the General Assembly will operate this session after several years of bending and breaking the rules to ram legislation through, with unannounced midnight sessions, lack of public input, restricted debate, and taking up major pieces of legislation with no notice and little debate allowed.

All that happened while Moore was head of the House Rules Committee under former House Speaker Thom Tillis. The examples of the questionable process are too numerous to mention.

The most infamous example was the decision by House leaders to take up legislation about abortion rights by attaching it to a measure on motorcycle safety with no notice to the media or the public or most lawmakers themselves.

The State Board of Education is now poised to authorize the creation of questionable virtual charter schools because the final budget included a provision that orders the board to authorize them. The provision was never debated and no one has even claimed authorship of the idea.

That’s no way to run a legislative body that is supposed to be working for all of us and giving every representative the chance to participate on behalf of the people he or she represents.

But that’s the way it was run in the last few years and the private one-party education meeting to make decisions doesn’t inspire much confidence that this session will be any different.

Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Director of NC Policy Watch — a progressive public policy think tank that is a special project of the N.C. Justice Center.

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