Legislative sleight of hand: Term-limits bill morphs into gay-marriage ban

The controversial proposal for a constitutional amendment setting a one-man, one-woman requirement for legal marriage in the state of North Carolina has taken an odd detour as a special session of the Legislature convenes. The wording is the same, but it now appears under a bill number originally intended to set term limits for Legislative leadership.

According to the General Assembly’s published website calendar, the Senate Judiciary I Committee convenes at 1:30 p.m. on Monday to discuss a constitutional amendment setting term limits for speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate via HB 61. But a report appearing late last night on a WRAL News post by Laura Leslie, their capital bureau chief, includes a copy of a new HB 61 — a proposed substitute that would call for a constitutional amendment to declare that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” Leslie reports that the copy was leaked to her, and questions possible circumvention of the state’s open meetings law and the public’s right to know what is being voted on by elected officials.

At 11 a.m. on Saturday, September 10, this reporter verified that the Legislative Calendar for the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday does indeed list its business as “Speaker/Pro Tem Term Limits” (HB 61), and that the copy of HB 61 available to the public on the website corresponds with that topic. Members of the public wishing to speak to at the hearing, according to the website, must sign up with the committee assistant between 1 and 1:30 p.m. on that day.

The original — and highly controversial — marriage amendment language (also known as the gay marriage ban) was first introduced as HB 777 and SB 106, both acts titled “Defense of Marriage.” The wording in those two bills matches the wording now present in the leaked copy of the revised HB 61 (see update below). The original bills have been expected to generate great public interest during the short session of the Legislature that opens tomorrow; both had been forwarded to the respective rules-and-operations committees of the two houses. The Senate’s Rules & Operations Committee meets at 4 p.m. on Monday, but no bill is currently listed for discussion on the website calendar.

(The Xpress has received no indication at this time that the term limits for House and Senate leadership originally introduced in HB 61 will now be substituted into HB 777/SB 106, so it is anticipated that the marriage amendment now has two paths to follow during the special session.)

Meanwhile, another high-temperature topic for the short session will be featured in a Hydraulic Fracturing Informational Session set for Tuesday at 2 p.m. Although the Senate has already voted to override the governor’s veto of SB 709, which would establish a pathway for the inland “fracking” method of natural gas exploration and for offshore drilling for natural gas, the House has not yet taken an override vote on the bill. Override votes are allowed under the rules set for the special session.

Your money at work

Last week’s column referred to a $50,000-per-day cost for reconvening the Legislature — a figure referred to on the governor’s website. We have found the original source for that figure, thanks to Wesley Taylor, financial services controller for the Legislative Services Office. Taylor provided a copy of a Jan. 1, 2011, letter from the Legislative Services Office to the then-Democratic leadership of the Legislature detailing the full costs of the Legislature.

“The approximate average monthly cost of operating the General Assembly is $3.5 million when not in session,” according to the letter — based on expenses for the past six years and consisting of “staff salaries, members’ salaries, expense allowances, travel and subsistence for interim meetings, study commissions, utilities, maintenance and repairs of the Legislative and Legislative Office Buildings.” The approximate additional monthly cost when the Legislature is in session is $1 million (members’ mileage, $50,000; members’ subsistence, $510,000; temporary staff salaries, $300,000; additional utilities, maintenance, supplies, $140,000). The ultimate breakdown for special sessions, then, became $250,000 weekly ($1,000,000/4 weeks), or $50,000 daily ($250,000/5 days).

Update on September 11: While the three referenced bills define marriage as “between one man and one woman,” the full wording of HB 61 does differ slightly from HB 777/SB 106. The latter bills state that “no other relationship shall be recognized as a valid marriage by the state.” The reworded HB 61 states that the one man/one woman marriage “is the only domestic legal union” valid in the state. Criticism had surfaced regarding the “no other relationship” clause in HB 777/SB 106, questioning the effect of this language on domestic partner benefits that are extended to same-sex couples by private or government entities in the state. It remains unclear how the change in wording might affect that debate.

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor


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