Last minute political slush fund bill draws opposition from across the spectrum
It should probably come as no surprise given the relentless drive of North Carolina conservatives to accumulate political power and silence their opponents, but there’s still something remarkably brazen about the late session campaign finance law change that lawmakers sent to Governor McCrory last Friday.
As reported in numerous venues (this summary by reporter Mark Binker of WRAL was one of the better ones), lawmakers appended the controversial provision onto a bill that would change next year’s primary election from May to March (itself a controversial and questionable change). The provision would allow the leader of each political party caucus of the House of Representatives and Senate (i.e. the Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Tem, and the minority leaders in both houses) to establish a separate, “affiliated party committee” to support the election of candidates of that leader’s political party.
This from the official legislative staff explanation:
“An affiliated party committee would be treated like a political party for purposes of the campaign finance laws. Under current law, the contribution limitation of $5,100 per election per individual does not apply to a political party, and political parties may accept contributions from registered lobbyists. For limited purposes, if the funds are segregated, a political party may accept contributions from corporations, which other political committees may not do. By definition, a political action committee excludes a political party.”
Now here’s what that means in plain English (courtesy of the good government and election watchdogs at Democracy North Carolina):
“Section 3 of H-373 calls these slush funds ‘affiliated party committees,’ but they are actually bank accounts completely controlled by one person – either the House Speaker, Senate President Pro Tem, or the House or Senate minority party leader. No money may be ‘expended except when authorized by the leader.’
Unlike a legislator’s campaign account, these new slush funds can accept limitless donations from lobbyists or corporations, even while the legislature is in session. Duke Energy, hog barons, gambling interests or a private contractor could pour money into a fund as a key bill is being debated. The money can be used to help elect or defeat candidates or for ‘daily operations’ deemed relevant to the leader.
These changes take us backwards. They undercut the reforms adopted after the deal-making scandals involving House Speaker Jim Black a decade ago. They give wealthy special interests new ways to dominate NC politics. And they create new ways for legislative leaders to sell access, steer money into their pet causes, and exert control over other legislators.”
As a practical matter, this means that a wealthy special interest with important business before the General Assembly—a giant energy company or a road builder for instance—could literally deposit $1 million in the Senate President Pro Tem’s “affiliated party committee” account the day before an important vote in the Senate. This would be the case despite the fact that the Senate leader is prohibited by law from receiving contributions from lobbyists during the legislative session.
It is, in other words, a stunning and blatant invitation/license to commit what amounts to bribery that makes the Jim Black scandal of a decade ago look like small potatoes.
Surprising opposition spurs close vote in the House
Interestingly, the genesis of this legislation may have as much to do with intramural battles on the right as it does with quashing progressives. Since the measure arose in recent days, far right websites are alight with scathing attacks claiming that the bill represents an effort by legislative leaders to control GOP primary elections, prop up their allies and quash Tea Party opposition. This is from the fire breathing right wingers at the Beaufort Observer:
“These funds allow the ‘Leadership’ to control how the members of that party vote in the Legislature. They can reward and punish those who do not vote the way the leadership wants them to vote by simply “buying” those votes. And they need not spend much money to control the votes. The threat to give or withhold campaign money will suffice.
These APC’s will no doubt suck the real money out of the campaigns of individual members and the state party. Any serious lobbyist or donor knows that they can get much more leverage for their money by donating to the APC/caucus/leadership than trying to impact 170 members.
Challengers who seek to run independent campaigns against the “chosen” candidates will stand very little chance unless they already have serious name recognition before filing. For example, this virtually kills the chance of an unaffiliated, independent or Third Party candidate in the General Election.”
The even-more-rabidly far right Daily Haymaker put it this way:
“But this legislation allows for the money raised by these committees to be used any way the leaders want in primary races. Cross your party leaders, and you may find yourself with a primary challenger loaded with cash provided by one of these new ‘affiliated committees.’”
In part, no doubt, as a result of the ultra-conservative opposition, the bill won only narrow approval in the House last week. With numerous members absent or not voting on Thursday afternoon, the vote was 52-49. Amazingly for the hyper-partisan General Assembly, nineteen Republicans voted “no” while seven Democrats helped provide the margin of victory. The bill passed the less-contentious Senate 30-13.
A Greensboro News & Record editorial praised Rep. John Blust, a committed soldier of the right who often clashes with legislative leaders, for his stance against the bill:
“Blust spoke passionately against the provision, for two reasons. First, it appeared Wednesday night and was never properly vetted by legislators or the public. Second, it’s self-serving.
‘It will feed that attitude out there that the political class sure looks out for itself,’ he said. ‘When there’s money at stake those guys can move at lightning pace. I think it’s going to fuel more bad faith that people have for us. … I’d like to do something to improve public confidence.’”
A possible veto?
One might suspect and hope under such circumstances that Gov. McCrory would seize the opportunity to play a real role in the legislative process from which he’s so often excluded, “step on some toes” as he claims to like to do and, at the same time, reach out to the hard right by vetoing the measure. His hometown newspaper, the Charlotte Observer¸ called for such action in a Saturday editorial:
“The proposal is not law yet. It was presented to Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday. McCrory, voters will recall, campaigned in 2012 as the change agent who would come in to fix a broken state government. He said the election gave him a mandate to do so.
There’s nothing more broken about government than the vast amounts of money that course through it seeking to shape policy to benefit certain special interests. Legislative leaders want to open those spigots up even higher. McCrory should protect North Carolinians from that, knowing the legislature would sustain his veto.”
Such an action, however, would require the Governor to pick a fight with Senator Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore – something he’s never shown himself very adept at pulling off. Add to this the pressure to act quickly on the primary election date change portion of the bill from national Republicans and what appears to be the rapidly approaching end of the legislative session and it’s easy to imagine McCrory backing down once again from his 2012 promises to clean up state government.