Rep. Ralph Norman’s bid to bring more sunlight to S.C. Republican Caucus meetings was met with little enthusiasm among his cohorts Wednesday.
Norman, who is challenging current Speaker Bobby Harrell for the House’s top post, rose near the end of the GOP Caucus meeting and called for opening up caucus meetings to the public, and said there should be an open vote for speaker.
Norman said that closed-door gatherings such as Wednesday’s prevent legislators from being held accountable by voters and allow those in positions of power to act against those who challenge them.
Specifically, legislators need to be able to make budget cuts without having to worry about retribution, he said in an interview with The Nerve afterward.
“We can pass all the feel-good legislation we want, but with a billion dollars coming out of the budget (as federal stimulus funding ends), that’s front and center the main issue we’re going to be facing,” said Norman, a Rock Hill developer. “Leadership talks about how tight things are, but there are certain things within the budget that simply aren’t on the table when it comes to making cuts, such as Innovista and the Education Oversight Committee.”
Under the current setup, individuals are deciding which programs stay and which go, rather than the caucus as a whole, Norman said.
“Right now, all I’m interested in is getting those overall core services of government funded, given the shape of our budget,” he said. “And we can’t do that if everyone is afraid that something’s going to happen to them if they go against the wishes of the speaker.”
Harrell, of Charleston, who has been speaker since 2005, did not return calls to The Nerve seeking comment.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, Charleston, said holding open caucus meetings would ultimately serve little good.
“The purpose of the caucus is for Republicans to get together and form our game plan,” he said. “Often, there are heated exchanges. It’s kind of like a family fight. We hash out our differences and then we come out more unified.
“I’m not sure having the press and public there would help us govern South Carolina better,” Limehouse added. “It would probably inhibit a lot of the policy making.”
Norman isn’t the first to advocate for more openness in House Republican Caucus proceedings. In January 2007, First Amendment advocates were disturbed when House members passed rules that allowed the House Republican Caucus to conduct closed-door meetings.
At that time, the rules were approved in a hastily called committee meeting and voted on by the full House quickly thereafter. No notice was announced on the floor, nor was it posted to the General Assembly’s website, as required.
An attorney for the South Carolina Press Association said at the time the action violated state open-meetings law, but then-House Majority Leader Jim Merrill said House rules were exempt from public-notification rules.
The matter is particularly important when it comes to the election of the speaker, who is arguably the most powerful elected official in South Carolina.
The speaker has the ability to guide an agenda in a much stronger and more direct way than the governor. He has enormous power in guiding which issues come to the House floor and which get hung up in committee. He can clear paths as well as throw up roadblocks.
But the public was shut out in 2005 when members of the House Republican Caucus met to decide who would succeed departing Speaker David Wilkins.
That same year, when Senate Republicans met to decide whether to keep Hugh Leatherman on as majority leader or to replace him, the meeting was kept open.
The public was also kept in the dark in 2006 and 2008, when Harrell was re-elected as speaker, although he was unopposed.
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster found in a 2006 opinion that the House Republican Caucus must meet in the open to abide by the Freedom of Information Act. But caucus leaders disagreed, claiming they didn’t have to operate in full view of the public and press.
McMaster said state law appeared to define legislative caucuses as committees of the General Assembly, which made them subject to open-meeting laws. He also said the House GOP Caucus receives rent-free office space from the state, which would meet the law’s definition of a public body being an entity that gets anything of value from the state.
But because the attorney general’s ruling did not carry the force of the law, the House Republican Caucus continued to admit the public on a meeting-by-meeting basis.
One House member at Wednesday’s meeting, held at the Palmetto Club in Columbia, got up and insinuated Norman was being hypocritical because he had recently advocated for a secret ballot when it came time for the caucus to elect a speaker, but wanted caucus meetings open.
“Rep. Norman suggested that the caucus have a vote inside the caucus to determine who it wanted to support, in a secret ballot,” said Rep. Jim Harrison, Richland, who did not make the comment alleging Norman was being hypocritical. “He did so because he believes there could be retribution from the current speaker.”
Harrison said he would not address the issue of whether or not retribution was a reality.
Norman confirmed that he’d recently talked about holding the upcoming speaker’s election by secret ballot because it would eliminate concerns of payback from those in power, he said.
“In the past, when some of us challenged budget items, there was retribution,” Norman said.
However, other Republicans got up during the meeting and said they didn’t think retribution was a problem.
“Retribution is a strong word,” Limehouse said afterward. “Every speaker over the course of history in every body has had to take action that somebody didn’t like.”
Norman pointed out that both Nikki Haley, Lexington, and Nathan Ballentine, Richland, were removed from committee posts in 2008 after being vocal proponents of increased roll call voting.
“When there’s a child in a classroom that keeps acting up and acting up, the teacher eventually has to taken them out into the hallway and slap them on the wrist with a ruler,” Limehouse said. “Moving one person from committee to another is hardly a cardinal sin. It’s not a major issue.”
Ballentine was at the caucus meeting but could not be reached for comment. Haley did not attend.
Rep. Gary Simrill, York, wasn’t able to attend the caucus meeting but said afterward the idea of retribution for going against House leadership’s wishes isn’t make-believe.
“I haven’t had it happen to me personally, but I’ve seen it from afar,” he said. “I’ve seen it with Nikki Haley and Nathan Ballentine.”
At today’s meeting, Norman also brought up the issue of an automated phone survey, or robocall, delivered to a significant number of South Carolina Republicans Tuesday regarding the caucus meeting.
“The enemies of transparency are at it again,” the automated call began. “Tomorrow, at a regular meeting of the Republican House Caucus, those who would hide their votes are attempting to conduct a secret ballot vote that the public will have no access to. Press 1 if you think it is wrong for your Republican representative to vote tomorrow by secret ballot in a closed-door meeting. Press 2 if you think it is all right for your Republican representative to vote secretly behind closed doors tomorrow.”
Norman said that Harrell admitted during the caucus meeting that he was responsible for the robocall.
Harrell declined to discuss the issues of open caucus meetings or holding open elections for speaker when Norman raised them.
Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or email@example.com.