EVEN BEFORE his election earlier this month as House speaker, Jay Lucas had signaled that he wanted to pursue important policy initiatives from a new perspective — overhauling an ethics law without the baggage of a leader who was trying to fight off serious criminal charges under that too-weak law, and repairing an inefficient, parochial transportation program as an integral part of any plan to funnel more money into fixing our roads.
He already had committed to reducing the power of the speaker’s office, after then-Speaker Bobby Harrell was indicted and pleaded guilty to six public corruption charges, ending the rein of what representatives finally felt free to say openly was a speaker who was controlling, even dictatorial.
And when Mr. Lucas was elected speaker earlier this month, he talked about all of that, as well as the need to provide a good education to children in our poorest school districts after the Supreme Court’s ruling that the state was unconstitutionally failing to do so. And that was all encouraging.
Perhaps even more encouraging was what he said about how the House operates, a matter over which even a speaker who has voluntarily divested himself of some power retains significant control:
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• House sessions will begin on time.
• There will be more leadership opportunities, and the leadership team won’t make all the decisions.
• Leaders won’t surprise rank-and-file members — he just as easily could have said “mislead” — with complex bills sprung on them at the last minute that do a lot more, or less, than they are led to believe.
• He and other leaders will explain themselves to the public rather than hiding behind news releases.
This may not seem exciting, but the calcified, insular practices of Mr. Harrell’s House often led to bad legislation, cut most representatives out of any effective lawmaking role and created an atmosphere where too many things that should have been challenged were not.
It was a stark contrast to the way the House traditionally operated. The House had been the body that was punctual, while senators dragged themselves to meetings whenever they felt like it, on what was universally referred to as “Senate time.” It was the House that operated in the sunshine, while the Senate worked out deals behind closed doors and sprung them on the public, and often other senators, as a fait accomplis. It was the House where important new ideas arose, were vetted and passed, while the Senate was where bills went to die. It was the House whose leaders were willing to explain what they were doing and why, while Senate leaders often seemed disdainful of public accountability.
But in recent years, House leaders began making more and more major decisions in secret, offering more and more take-it-or-leave-it deals, on bills most representatives felt powerless to leave. This disturbing trend kicked into overdrive this year, as Mr. Harrell apparently became more and more focused on his legal problems and less and less focused on the House.
If he does nothing more than return the House to its proud traditions of openness and accountability, Mr. Lucas will serve our state well. But if he does that, he almost certainly will re-energize and reinvigorate the body, which will allow it to drive important reforms of our ethics law and our transportation and education systems and our tax policies into law — and that will serve our state even more.