When speaking about the U.S. Congress, the commentator David Hawkings has noted that committee assignments take “an outsized importance in driving each member’s legislative priorities and perceived areas of expertise — and in many cases fundraising focus as well.”
The same could be said for the North Carolina House of Representatives. At least, my experience suggests that.
Four years ago, if someone had asked me what my legislative initiatives would be, I would have rattled off a range of different bills that I intended to introduce. Two years later, having served on several legislative committees, my priorities were more concentrated on issues that would come before the committees on which I expected to serve — issues like transportation funding and a range of environmental issues. However, a call from Speaker Thom Tillis just before Christmas nearly two years ago changed much of that when he told me I’d be co-chairing the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee and a Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction over criminal law issues.
While broadly supportive of raising teacher pay and increasing education funding after years of decreasing education expenditures, I wasn’t expecting a lead role in education — but that was what I was given.
Similarly, I’d shown little interest in criminal law — but my appointment to the Judiciary chairmanship suddenly put me in a position to guide the House’s consideration on a wide range of criminal law issues. At the time, I suspect that Henderson County’s District Attorney (now Superior Court judge) Jeff Hunt and then-Sheriff Rick Davis wouldn’t have really expected me to be able to drive changes in criminal law that they may have wanted.
But our current District Attorney, Greg Newman, and our current Sheriff, Charles McDonald, know that their House member has become the go-to lawmaker on the issues most important to them.
In 2013, shortly after a stormwater pipe busted over Super Bowl weekend under a coal pond on the Dan River, I again found myself leading on an issue that nowhere appeared as one of my priorities during the campaign just a few months earlier. But my committee assignments and my experience handling environmental issues prompted Speaker Tillis to tap me to lead this new challenge.
Yesterday, I joined the Asheville City Council to learn about and discuss the city’s legislative priorities. A council member asked about my priorities and I caught myself thinking how differently I responded to him than I would have responded just four years ago.
Now, my priorities reflected my work on various legislative committees and — with an expectation that I’ll be working on the budget, on environmental legislation and on criminal law issues — most of my priorities related to issues that I learned about or gained expertise on while serving on legislative committees.
In Congress, committee assignments are made by a powerful committee dominated by House leadership, including Speaker Boehner but also including others. In the North Carolina House, committee assignments are made by the Speaker. While the NC Speaker no doubt consults with his majority caucus and with leaders of the minority caucus, he largely controls these appointments himself. This explains why so much focus is put on the selection of the Speaker, who ordinarily is nominated by the majority caucus and confirmed by a vote of the full House. (Of course, back in 2003, when Rep. Carolyn Justus represented District 117, the election of Speaker resulted in split leadership between the two parties and subsequently indictment of two legislators for vote rigging involving the election of the Speaker.)
In Congress, legislators get appointed to committees and then they typically stay on the same committees, slowing moving up in seniority. In the General Assembly, there really isn’t seniority like there is in Congress. Committee membership and leadership changes from term-to-term and (as some Democratic members found out when they unexpectedly found themselves in the minority in 2011) committee assignments can significantly change. Last term, I sort of expected I’d land a chairmanship, perhaps on the transportation appropriations committee or a judiciary subcommittee; my real surprise was in receiving two chairmanships: one of them being the appropriations subcommittee, with responsibility for the largest part of the budget — education.
So how did I respond to the Asheville City Council members wanting to know of my priorities? I suggested I’d be engaged in crafting the education budget and told him I was embarking on a tour of coal ash ponds around the state anticipating that my committee assignments were likely to be similar to my assignments last term. However, my recent experience has been that I could have a different set of priorities come January, depending on what my committee assignments are.
My only expectation is that I’ll be given significant responsibilities because Speaker Tim Moore knows that I’m capable of handling difficult legislation and can manage legislation in committee and on the floor. My hope is that I’m not given a whole new set of committee assignments, because I’m not sure I have the patience to learn a completely new set of issues — say Medicaid reform, tax policy or mental health — after having developed expertise in education funding, transportation, environmental policy and criminal law.