The good and bad of bipartisan ethics reform

The good and bad of bipartisan ethics reform

- in Fitzsimon File

One of the few issues on which there is generally bipartisan consensus in the General Assembly is ethics reform and that was true again this week as the House and Senate approved new reforms in the wake of investigations into the activities of former Governor Mike Easley and his associates.

There are plenty of reasons for the overwhelming approval of what ended up being slightly different versions of ethics legislation in the House and Senate. Both toughen the penalties for violating campaign finance rules, expand ethics laws to cover more state officials, and crack down on so-called pay to play activities, where people who do business with the state make contributions to the official ultimately in charge of their contract.

The House version is tougher on pay to play, limiting contributions to $1,000 from contractors to the officials they do business with, but House members also voted to weaken their original proposal by reducing the time a legislator has to wait before becoming a lobbyist to six months instead of a year.

Members of both the House and Senate deserve credit for passing ethics reform, though the Senate leadership needs to recognize that the House version is stronger and agree to its provisions soon so a reform package can pass before the session adjourns, which could come as early as Friday.

But there's a flip side to the bipartisan consensus about meaningful reforms and it was on display recently too when Representative John Blust tried to convince a House committee to add a provision limiting how much political parties can give to lawmakers' campaigns.

Contributions from individuals and PACs are limited to $4,000 per election cycle, based on the reasoning that one special interest should not be able to buy significant influence with a legislator by giving huge sums of money to his or her campaign.

But contributions from political parties in North Carolina are not limited, making a mockery of campaign finance laws. Legislative leaders raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and pass it on to their political party, which then doles it out in massive amounts to legislators in close races. Special interests or wealthy individuals can give as much as they want to political parties, providing another pot of money to distribute.

The Democratic Party gave more than $500,000 to one Senate candidate in 2008. Republicans also legally laundered money from the party to candidates, just in smaller amounts.

Blust said on the House floor that limiting party contributions is a key part of battling the pay for play mentality that has developed in Raleigh and Blust is right, something you don't read often in this space.

House Minority Leader Paul Stam led the opposition to Blust's proposal in the House committee, claiming the limits were unconstitutional, which is absurd. Many states impose the limits and courts have ruled many times that limiting contributions does not violate freedom of speech rights.

Blust tried again on the House floor, but was unable to convince his colleagues to suspend the rules to allow another vote on his amendment.

That's fine with most Democrats and Republicans. Top officials in both parties don't want to limit the loophole that allows special interests to buy influence by making huge contributions to candidates using the party as a conduit.

Very few lawmakers seem interested in that either, and legislative leaders like the loyalty the money they raise engenders from the rank and file members who receive large party contributions.

This week's votes on ethics reform are encouraging and lawmakers shouldn't leave Raleigh until they come to a final agreement on the differences between the House and Senate versions. The bipartisan votes are a hopeful sign that will happen.

But unless things change dramatically and soon, it appears that bipartisanship will also allow political parties to continue to skirt campaign finance rules and funnel special interest money to candidates.

The voters deserve better.

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.