All 50 members of the North Carolina Senate have each introduced a nearly identical bill. The bill is usually comprised of just 41 words. The details of the proposed legislation could easily fit in a tweet.
These are what's known as ‘blank bills.’
North Carolina’s ‘blank bills’ follow a simple formula. Here is one of them:
That’s the entire bill introduced by Terry Van Duyn, Democratic senator representing Buncombe County.
As it stands now, Senator Van Duyn’s bill effectively does nothing. That’s true of all 50 blank bills introduced this year. And that is by design. Senators had until the middle of this month to file every bill that would originate in the chamber. Even though this is the long legislative session. So what if something happens in a district later this year that needs action by the general assembly? Senator Van Duyn says these blank bills serve as a placeholder.
"I can take that placeholder bill and amend it to do what needs to be done for that constituency."
Now it sounds like good government. State senators trying to be there for their constituents. But the inherent flexibility of blank bills can be an issue.
"Not only is the blank bill acting as a placeholder but the title of it is a placeholder," said Paige Worsham, senior policy council for the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.
Blank bill titles are as generic as their provisions. Often just the number of a senatorial district followed by the words Local Act 1. Those titles often don’t change even when the content of the bills do. This potentially masks the content being considered by legislators. And it has political watchdog groups on both the left and the right concerned.
"It is a practice that makes things less transparent and that’s never in the public interest," says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the left leaning NC Policy Watch. Mitch Kokai, spokesman and political analyst for the right leaning John Locke Foundation agrees. "That’s a problem. Don’t use a blank bill just to hide a piece of legislation."
And while neither man can point to a specific instance of a blank bill being used to hide a controversial piece of legislation. They both use the same example of a 2013 bill to show the General Assembly has used a similar tactic.
"A motorcycle safety bill that was changed to include restrictions on abortion services," says Fitzsimon.
"Motorcycle helmet restrictions or something of that sort and when it came back it had to do with abortion," says Kokai, who quickly adds, "There is the potential with blank bills that you could see something like that. And it in fact could be quite controversial. And there’s always the potential for that to happen when you have a blank bill."
Kokai and Fitzsimon also agree the solution for this could be easy. Relax the bill filing deadline and/or have the North Carolina Senate do what the house has already done, ban blank bills outright.