Before this General Assembly session began, reform advocates worried that lawmakers would end up passing legislation that wouldn’t make fundamental changes to lobbying and ethics laws, but would allow them to claim they passed something to respond to scandals that prompted public outrage.
Pretend ethics, as State Ethics Board Chairman Bob Farmer called one version of the Senate bill.
Late Wednesday afternoon, it was clear that the advocates’ worries were justified. The final version of lobbying and ethics reform legislation negotiated behind closed doors by a conference committee represents a missed opportunity to restore public confidence in the General Assembly by addressing the corrupting influence of lobbyists and money on the legislative process.
The reform community and a House Select Committee that spent several months studying the issue supported legislation that had three main components, a ban on gifts from lobbyists, a prohibition on lobbyists raising money for lawmakers, and an independent ethics commission to oversee the legislative and executive branches of government.
The final version of the bill makes some progress in other areas, but it falls well short of meeting those three goals. It bans lobbyists from bundling contributions, but the provision is drawn so tightly that it doesn’t prohibit a lobbyist from collecting unlimited numbers of campaign checks for a legislator, as long as someone else actually delivers them.
The bill does not ban lobbyists from raising money or even hosting fundraisers in their living rooms, a ban that was supported by not only the House Select Committee, but also by House Speaker Jim Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.
The bill sets up an ethics commission with far less authority over legislators than reformers sought, and also closes ethics commission hearings to the press and public, a retreat from current law, which requires the meetings to be open.
The legislation includes a lobbyist gift ban, but includes a long list of exceptions that make the ban almost meaningless. One of them allows legislators to accept “entertainment” associated with an educational event, meaning that a legislator on a panel at a meeting in Pinehurst could also be treated to a round of golf by an interest group that employs a lobbyist.
Another exemption is even more troubling. It allows lobbyists to give legislators anything they want as long as it is not associated with lobbying, whatever that means.
Just as troubling as the loopholes and missed opportunities in the bill has been the attitude of lawmakers when they discuss it. With very few exceptions, every debate about the reform legislation has been dominated by complaints by lawmakers that the issue is even before them.
There were very few passionate speeches for an end to the advantage some lobbyists earn by raising campaign money for lawmakers. Virtually no one inside the General Assembly clamored for the crackdown on the role of money and the influence of well-heeled special interests that the public demands.
The speeches and the debate instead brought mostly anger at the suggestion that something was amiss in a system where lobbyists raise cash and provide trips and dinners and golf outings to build relationships they can turn into votes.
That anger from lawmakers was palpable again in the legislative halls Wednesday afternoon, as obvious as the ineffectiveness of the legislation the House and Senate are set to pass.