Local News

Secretary Of State Forms Commission To Crack Down On Lobbying

Posted February 5, 2004

— Some might consider them bribes. Others would classify them as gifts.

We're talking about what lobbyists give lawmakers as they push certain agendas.

The perks can involve anything from dinner to game tickets.

The Secretary of State has formed a commission to make sure the public knows more about the wheeling and dealing.

Corporate lobbyists buy expensive dinners. University of North Carolina legislative liaisons hand out Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and football tickets to public officials.

It's a practice that is legal, but often never reported to the public.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall said the law governing lobbyists looks like Swiss cheese. So Thursday, she named the

Advisory Council on Legislative Lobbying Policy and Regulation

-- a commission comprised of public advocates, attorneys and lobbyists -- to make it better.

For every state lawmaker, there are countless lobbyists paid to inform and influence. By law, they must register their names and interests with the Secretary of State.

Any of their expenses -- from food to entertainment to contributions -- also are recorded. But, the recorded amounts still are only a fraction of what lobbyists really spend on lawmakers.

One of the holes in North Carolina law relates to what is called "goodwill" lobbying. A lobbyist can treat a lawmaker to lavish dinners and shower him with gifts, but as long as they are not discussing a particular piece of legislation at the time, the dinners and gifts do not have to be disclosed.

"Folks have figured out a way to get around the language of the law that we have right now," Marshall said.

For that reason, Marshall wants a commission to look at ways to improve the system.

A study by the

Center for Public Integrity

gives North Carolina a failing grade for how it monitors lobbying. The group ranked the state 26th in the country.

The report cites no "cooling-off" period before legislators can become lobbyists and cash in by trading on the ties they developed as public servants.

Former House Speaker Dan Blue, for instance, now lobbies for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Furthermore, there are big gaps in what lobbyists and their companies pay and what is disclosed to the public.

"I think, at present, our reporting scheme is not very meaningful," said UNC law school dean Gene Nichol. "And surely that is one of the things this commission will look at."

Nichol will chair the commission for the next three months. The commission begins meeting next week and plans to report back with recommendations on how to change the laws on lobbying.

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