At its most recent meeting, the Surry County Board of Commissioners approved a letter to be sent to state politicians, hoping to get the county exempted from a new law.
Well, the law itself isn’t really the problem; it’s part of the riders that is causing all the trouble.
In legislative lingo, a rider is a provision added to a bill that has little or nothing to do with the purpose of the bill. In other words, a parasite.
Or in simpler terms, it is political blackmail, which often is just as ugly and dirty as it sounds.
“Hey, you want to get funding to build a new hospital? Then I’m going to need a rider about hog waste lagoon regulation.”
These two things have absolutely nothing to do with each other, so why should it be allowed on the original bill?
Politicians will tell you that this is the cost of doing business. If you want to get anything done, you have to grease a few palms to win votes. I would tell you that this is one of the worst things to happen to governing a nation and is one of the biggest reasons the general public dislikes politicians.
Look at this example that affects us locally.
House Bill 56 was labeled as an environment-friendly move to protect water quality in North Carolina. The bill includes $435,000 to help treat a chemical pollutant called GenX in the Cape Fear River. GenX is a chemical in use since 2009 to make Teflon and other non-stick products.
That sounds fine, doesn’t it? Preventing chemicals from going in waterways? (I’m a little less supportive of state tax dollars cleaning up some chemical company’s problem.)
How could a bill about Teflon impact us? Because a rider was attached to the bill that affects landfill regulations.
What? Landfill rules? I thought we were talking about chemicals in water.
In the U.S. Senate, a popular method is to stick a rider on an appropriations bill that provides funding for government programs and/or projects.
A big issue in the past month was the FCC voting to repeal its net netrality rules. Eight years ago, Sen. Kay Hutchinson (R-Texas) attempted to pass a rider ending net neutrality by attaching it to a bill for military and veterans construction projects (according to published reports at the time).
When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the bill included a rider about student loan reform.
There are generally two reasons to attach a rider: one, the provision lacks enough support to pass on its own and must count on the bill itself earning enough votes; or two, someone who opposes the bill will attach a controversial rider in the hopes of barricading the legislative roadway (known as a poison pill).
Right off the top of my head I can think of a couple of things to minimize the impact of harmful riders.
First, if a rider is attached to a bill, allow the governor/president to chop that fat off before signing the bill into law.
In legal terms, this is known as a line-item veto. In this country, 43 of the 50 states have it written in their constitutions that the governor can use a line-item veto. North Carolina is one of the seven which doesn’t have this.
The problem with this method is that it gives a lot of power to whichever political party controls the governor’s chair. The GOP would never get a rider past Gov. Roy Cooper, but Democrats could. And when Pat McCrory was governor and the Republican Party held the General Assembly, the Democrats would have been pretty powerless.
So that pretty much leaves just the other option: don’t let them happen. Don’t allow any unrelated amendments to be added. Once a bill is introduced, vote on the merits of that bill and don’t allow any additions. At the very least, if say Sen. Joe Bob introduces a bill, then only Joe Bob can add an amendment — not some other politician trying to muddy the water.
In my many years of attending city and county meetings, I’ve never heard our local commissioners use riders on a motion. Yes, sometimes a board will debate where to spend money in the budget, but that is understandable — there is only so much money to go around so compromises must be made.
You’ll never hear Chairman Eddie Harris say, “If Surry Central High School wants roof repairs, then I want a noise ordinance passed for my community so the neighbors don’t interrupt my beauty sleep.”
Elected officials are supposed to represent the will of the public. As Abraham Lincoln described it, “goverment of the people, by the people and for the people.”
If adults across the country were polled, I can’t imagine that more than half of them would favor riders. In fact, I’d bet that once the concept of a rider were explained to people, the vast majority would be opposed.
And yet, the politicians who make the rules will never go for it. Riders and pork barrels are their way of life.
The American public deserves a better way.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.