Not just any reform will do

Not just any reform will do

- in Fitzsimon File


This could be the last week of the legislative session and that prompted a spate of editorials this past weekend urging lawmakers to pass lobbying and ethics reform before they leave town.  That’s good. The legislators need constant reminders that the public is demanding reforms.

But the real question is what kind. The understandable attention on the impending adjournment and the Senate’s rush to get something passed has taken away from the focus on what the Senate is currently considering.

It is a pale imitation of the recommendations by the House Select Committee on Government and Ethics Reform and a package well short of the priorities of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying Reform.

It does not include a ban on fundraising by lobbyists. It does not limit how much lobbyists can contribute to campaigns. It does not set up a truly independent ethics commission like ones that currently operate in more than 30 states, and it does not really ban gifts from lobbyist to legislators. The bill’s gift ban contains a long list of exemptions, most of which are more accurately described as loopholes.

The Coalition for Lobbying Reform sent a letter to Governor Mike Easley, House Speaker Jim Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight from former Governors Hunt and Holshouser and several other North Carolina leaders calling for reform that includes the proposals from the House Select Committee.

Monday brought more evidence of why they are needed. Democracy North Carolina released a report showing that lobbyists contributed $450,000 to legislative candidates in the 2004 election cycle. The top three lobbyist contributors gave a total of more $85,000 between them. 

That’s a lot of access and that’s only part of the story. Democracy North Carolina Research Director Bob Hall points out that the public gets very little information about how much lobbyists raise, since most of the lobbyists spending for fundraising is not reported.

Hall found only 11 cases in 2003-2004 in which legislative candidates reported the food, liquor, and other in-kind donations made by lobbyists in connection with hosting fundraisers.  Most political observers in Raleigh will tell you that there are more than 11 fundraisers by lobbyists in a month during an election year, many at the lobbyists’ homes.

Not only is the lobbyist fundraising ban not part of the bill that a Senate Judiciary committee is scheduled to vote on early Monday evening, the issue has never really been discussed in the Senate or the House.

Senate Judiciary I Chair Dan Clodfelter believes the fundraising ban is unconstitutional so it was simply not included in the Senate version of the bill, even though other states have the ban and former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr says the ban does not violate the constitutional rights of lobbyists.

The ban was removed from the House bill that still sits on the House calendar awaiting a final vote. That vote has been delayed because House leaders know that an amendment to restore the fundraising ban is likely and they don’t want to vote on the issue, preferring instead to simply agree with the Senate proposal and not put House members on the spot.

It is not just reformers who want the fundraising ban. The North Carolina Professional Lobbyists Association does too.  Christie Barbee with the Association said “I think that the public feels there’s a question about it.”

She’s right. The public does have a question about it. People understand that lobbyists raising money for lawmakers and giving them $450,000 a year gives the lobbyists access no one else can have.

Banning fundraising and limiting contributions from lobbyists is not a violation of the constitution, but allowing them to continue is a violation of the public trust.

Lawmakers need to restore the fundraising ban and limits on campaign cash from lobbyists or the reforms won’t have much effect on business as usual in Raleigh.  It is true that time is running out this session, but there is still time left not only to pass reforms, but to pass reforms that matter, and that’s the true test.