Raleigh, N.C. — Amid the rush of office moves, angling for committee assignments and pomp that marks the beginning of the legislative session, another tradition shows top lawmakers have at least one eye on the next election before they even start governing in earnest.
Invitations to campaign fundraisers are circling around Raleigh, including a joint event for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker-designee Tim Moore on Jan. 13, the day before lawmakers are due to officially be sworn into office and officially organize themselves.
"I actually have three fundraisers the day before," said Moore, R-Cleveland, ticking off a list that included an event coordinated by the House Republican Caucus and an evening gathering featuring barbecue.
The reason legislators, Democrat and Republican, have held fundraisers for decades as they gather for the start of the lawmaking session is at least partly a pragmatic one, Moore said.
"Everybody is in town. You try to do these events when you can get maximum participation," he said.
There are also some legal reasons fundraisers are part of the circle of legislative life this time of year. Registered lobbyists are unable to give to candidate committees at any time. But lobbyist principals, the companies and individuals that hire lobbyists to advocate at the legislature on their behalf, can give as long as the General Assembly is not in session.
That means there are a few sweet spots on the legislative calendar during which there will be a preponderance legislators – and those who might want to bend their ears – in town when it is legal for virtually all comers to contribute. The day before the one-day organizational session on Jan. 14 is one. House Democrats will hold a fundraiser on Jan. 27, the day before the actual working session begins.
"They're the times we've got a critical mass of members there," said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, one of two conference chairs in charge of coordinating his caucus's campaign efforts.
While lawmakers say the timing is pragmatic, good-government advocates have deemed it problematic for years because it puts the flow of campaign cash in close proximity to the business of governing the state.
"Whether there's any real connection between the folks hosting the events and what the people giving want, there's that appearance," said Bob Phillips, North Carolina director for Common Cause, an advocacy group that has pushed for campaign finance reform. "When you're doing this literally the day before the session begins, the appearance of it is a problem."
Perception can be reality
There has long been a debate about how much campaign fundraising can influence policy. Lawmakers typically say they are not at all swayed by campaign contributions, saying that backers donate because they like the positions lawmakers already have. But good-government advocates such as Phillips say it strains credulity to say that those giving thousands of dollars to lawmakers expect nothing in return, especially when that cash comes on the cusp of lawmakers working on issues important to those donors.
For example, in 2013, just before the beginning of the legislation session, the political action committees affiliated with two warring dentistry groups gave on the cusp of the session to then-House Speaker Thom Tillis as legislation dealing with their industry was on tap. Tillis reported 45 late-January donations from groups such as Duke Energy's political action committee, as well as the PACs associated with the Farm Bureau, the North Carolina Auto Dealers Association and the North Carolina Home Builders Association among others that would all play a part in pitched legislative battles during the following six months.
Moore disagrees, saying that fundraising is simply part of the reality of serving in public office.
"Folks are going to contribute to campaigns as long as folks are running," he said. "If not, we can't pay for the signs, we can't buy ads on WRAL and everything else."
Phillips argues that the ever-present problem of perception and questions about what campaign donors might get in return for their dollars is aggravated by the close timing of the beginning-of-the-year fundraisers.
Lawmakers will not have to report money raised at their January fundraisers – or any fundraisers held through June 30 – until mid-July. That means the campaign cash collected this coming week will not be reported until the bulk of the legislative session is due to be over.
"Perception can be reality in many respects," Martin said. "If the public loses faith in government, it's bad for our democratic system."
That's why lawmakers over the past decade enacted ethics reforms that put restrictions on the ways lobbyists can woo lawmakers and put restrictions on campaign giving. Many of those reforms were put into place during a scandal involving former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black, who was charged in connection with contributions from a chiropractors group, which was pushing hard for a bill pending before the legislature.
Martin said one potential fix might be to increase the frequency of reporting so that the public and press have notice that those with an interest before the General Assembly were giving before legislation completed its journey, not weeks later.
Still, he said, pre-session fundraisers do not present the same problems that some other forms of giving do.
"In a weird way, the contributions to the party and candidates are the most transparent," he said.
A new breed of nonprofit groups, including N.C. House Legislative Partners, a group affiliated with GOP lawmakers, can raise unlimited money at any time, whether the legislative session is running or not. Except in rare cases, they do not have to report their fundraising and spending.
Phillips agrees that the new venues for what amounts to campaign fundraising is troubling and could undercut many of the Black-era-inspired reforms.
"We do want to try to have an environment where money is not the tool that gives those who have it an unfair advantage over everyone else," he said.