By Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina
Earlier this month at a national conference, North Carolina was celebrated for its progress in lobbying and ethics reform – quite a contrast to just four years ago, when a national watchdog organization gave our state failing marks for its notoriously weak laws on lobbying and ethics!
Indeed North Carolina has come a long way in a relatively short time – but not unscathed, unfortunately.
As we all know now, former Speaker Jim Black, former State Representative Michael Decker and former state lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings broke numerous lobbying, ethics and campaign laws, earning them each lengthy prison sentences.
The scandal, which is still unfolding, has stained the reputation of North Carolina, once known as the “good government state.” For the public’s trust to be restored, it will take time and a continued commitment.
The good news is that lawmakers have made remarkable progress in improving our state’s lobbying and ethics laws. But there is still more work to be done, especially when it comes to refining the relationship lobbyists have with state legislators and policy makers.
It’s important to remember, lobbying is an honorable profession and a protected right for all citizens. Lobbying, by definition, is to persuade through information – oral or written. But until this year, lobbying activities could legally include much more than sharing information.
North Carolina allowed lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts of money on lawmakers without having to report a penny. Lobbyists could serve as campaign treasurers for candidates. They could also provide no interest loans to elected officials. As we now know, this culture did not serve the public’s interest.
So it’s important to note that legislators passed laws tightening rules, closing reporting loopholes and restricting gifts, before the current scandals erupted in Raleigh. Reform minded legislators and interest groups were driven by the idea to get tougher laws on the books to prevent major problems from emerging.
That’s a worthy attitude to have as lawmakers address lobbying and ethics reform next year. While lobbyists can no longer spend freely in a direct way on those they seek to influence, they can still provide a perk that’s far more important than wining and dining.
Lobbyists can still raise unlimited amounts of campaign money for candidates – the very ones they will be seeking to influence in the legislature or halls of government. If we agree that lobbyists should no longer provide direct gifts, loans and other perks to legislators, we also should be able to agree that it is unhealthy to allow unlimited campaign fundraising.
Thus far, efforts to close this loophole have been resisted by legislators; some say it would be unenforceable or even unconstitutional.
Yet South Carolina has had such a law on the books for more than 15 years – unchallenged and no problems enforcing it. Connecticut is implementing a similar law this January. And a handful of other states around the country have lobbying fundraising regulations on the books.
Indeed North Carolina lawmakers passed a law last year banning lobbyists from personally contributing money and physically collecting and delivering campaign checks to candidates. These restrictions, while perhaps well intended, however, really don’t get to the heart of the problem. Despite these improvements, lobbyists are still able to participate in raising big money for candidates by arranging for others to make contributions.
Plain and simply, anyone raising big money has great value to a candidate. Countless stories and anecdotes float around the legislative building of lobbyists offering legislators fundraising help or lawmakers putting the squeeze on lobbyists to raise them money.
Lawmakers need to address this culture in 2008. As campaign costs continue soar, the value of fundraising increases. Lobbyists shouldn’t be involved in the fundraising game for candidates. It only invites the potential of more ethics and lobbying violations.
The NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government reform, a bi-partisan group of organizations and individuals drawn together for tougher lobbying laws, will be pushing for closing the lobbyist fundraising loophole in 2008.
Legislators next year should either ban or limit how much money lobbyists can raise for the people they seek to influence. They should do this before the season of big fundraising begins next summer and fall.
North Carolina can continue to polish its new image as a national leader in lobbying and ethics reform. Banning lobbyists from unlimited campaign fundraising will be another step in improving the honorable professions of public service and lobbying and restoring the public’s confidence in both.
Bob Phillips is the Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina