One forgotten area of reform

One forgotten area of reform

- in Fitzsimon File

It will be impossible for state lawmakers to ignore the calls for tougher ethics reforms when the General Assembly summer session convenes at noon Wednesday. Governor Beverly Perdue has proposed a package of reforms that are worth considering, though they don't go far enough and as the News & Observer reported this week, they are a scaled down version of ideas considered by Perdue's own staff earlier this year.

Lawmakers have also working to put a package together, which seems the least they can do as public confidence in state officials has again been shaken by the still unfolding investigations into the activities of former Governor Mike Easley and his political allies.

There are calls from the reform community for a wide range of important changes, including limiting the amount of money political parties can contribute to campaigns and requiring appointees to key boards and commission to disclose their fundraising activities for the politicians who appointed them.

Neither of those are part of Perdue's plan, but both are essential to make it easier to track the flow of special interest money by making the system more transparent, which is one of the most common words used by reformers and politicians alike.

Campaigns and the processes of government ought to be transparent. The public has the right to know who is giving politicians money and who is raising it for them.

People also deserve access to the deliberations of the lawmakers they elect to make decisions on their behalf, most importantly on how they decide to spend $20 billion of public money.

But calls for transparency in the legislative budget process are conspicuously absent from reform proposals from Perdue and legislative leaders. And they are long overdue.

Just look at the budget schedule this session. Senate Appropriations Chair Linda Garrou has announced that the Senate will pass its budget May 20, just eight days after the session convenes.

Bill deadlines established for the session call for Senators to introduce legislation affecting the budget by May 25, five days after the budget will have passed the Senate.

That's a perfect example of the absurd way the budget is put together in the General Assembly, particularly in the Senate. Everyone in Raleigh knows that key Senate leaders are writing the budget now in a corner room in the Legislative Office Building. The public is not invited and most Senators aren't either.

Soon after the session convenes, the Senate budget will be unveiled and reviewed briefly in a budget committee meeting with tight restrictions on amendments to change it. And even the Senate floor debate about how to spend $20 billion will be short.

Senate debate in recent years has been ended by a parliamentary procedure to make sure no troubling amendments are offered.

A few years ago, a Republican Senator pointed out to Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight that not only did Republican Senators have no input into the budget, but that many Democrats not part of the inner circle had no chance to influence it either.

Basnight's response was that the claim was not true, that Senators did have input into the budget if they came by his office and told him what they would like to see funded. That's a long way from transparency.

There have been significant improvements in the budget process in the House in recent years. There is at least usually thorough debate in public and a chance for lawmakers to offer their amendments in a committee and on the House floor.

But House Speaker Joe Hackney has been unable to convince Senate leaders to refrain from slipping policy provisions into the budget, most of which have not gone through the usual legislative process, and meetings of the conference committee that reconciles the differences in the two budgets are not always open and are rarely announced.

If Governor Perdue and legislative leaders are serious about restoring public confidence in the political system and the way government works, they need to go beyond more disclosure of contributions and fundraising.

They need to get the budget writers out of that corner room and into the sunshine.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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