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Legislature Agrees To Ethics Overhaul, Prepares To Wrap Up Session

Posted July 27, 2006

— The Legislature gave overwhelming approval Thursday to an overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules that would end lawmakers' unlimited access to campaign donations, dinners and other perks from lobbyists.

"These reforms serve a new day in government in North Carolina," Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, said during debate on the changes.

The measure also attempts to strengthen the state ethics commission by allowing it to investigate all three branches of government, although its probes would largely be hidden from the public and referred to other committees when House and Senate members and judges are involved.

Despite complaints that the bill doesn't go far enough, is too confusing and fails to prevent lobbyists from soliciting contributions for candidates, the House agreed 109-1 and the Senate 46-1 to the revisions that were more than a year in the making.

"The purpose of this bill is to create public confidence in our government," said House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange. "I think this bill is a lot simpler than a lot of people think it is."

If Gov. Mike Easley agrees to let the 58-page become law, the rules would ban lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, the governor, executive branch officials and high-ranking appointees, with several exceptions. Those include meals and drinks at public events for several people and travel for educational or legislative organizations.

Lobbyists would still be able to give gifts to state officials with whom they have an outside personal, civic or religious relationship if a "reasonable person" would conclude that the gift was not made for the purpose of lobbying. Lobbyists and legislators would have to reports such gifts worth more than $200.

"We've cleaned up the gift ban so that it's workable, sensible and logical," said Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg. "It's a better bill than it was when either chambers first considered it."

University of North Carolina system campuses are specifically barred from giving tickets for athletic events to lawmakers and executive branch officials.

Reform advocates complain the bill doesn't go far enough when compared to the recommendations of a special House committee formed by House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg.

"It's stronger that what the current law is and that's a good thing," said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, noting that the gift ban could be more restrictive and that lobbyists should be barred from soliciting campaign donations. "There's more work to be done."

Legislative leaders contend a solicitation ban would be unconstitutional.

Lobbyists would be prevented from "bundling" campaign donations, a practice in which several campaign checks are given at a time to a candidate, sometimes after a fundraising event. Even that provision could be challenged, supporters said.

"We have pushed the constitutional envelope on this bill," Hackney said.

Most lobbyists don't raise money for candidates, said Christie Barbee, president of the N.C. Professional Lobbyist Association.

The House panel that made the initial recommendations was formed after at least two people associated with Black were investigated for violating state lobbying laws related to their work with Scientific Games Corp. leading up to last year's lottery vote. Black also has been criticized for his handling of bills involving industries that have donated to his campaign. He denies campaign contributions swayed his political stands.

Opponents of the bill contend the legislation doesn't touch on the long-standing concern about the influence of campaign cash in politics.

"It's not going to address the issues that we are plagued with," said Rep. John Rhodes, R-Mecklenburg, the lone opponent of the bill in the House. "The public has concerns about the relationship between power and money."

Sen. Hugh Webster, R-Alamance, cast the only no vote in the Senate.

A new eight-member State Ethics Commission would conduct inquiries on complaints filed against all three branches of government. The probes would remain confidential unless the subject of the complaint requests otherwise.

Inquiries that aren't dismissed against lawmakers and judges would be forwarded to existing ethics committees that would oversee hearings and issue sanctions. The state commission would conduct hearings involving the governor, Council of State members, other top executive agency leaders and appointees to boards and commissions.

Legislators Pleased With Progress As They Wrap Up Session

Lawmakers came into the short session in May. Three months later, they are now preparing to end their session after passing several major pieces of legislation.

Lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval to delay the date of future primary runoffs by three additional weeks, permit "instant runoffs" in up to 20 counties and cities, and further expand expenditure reporting requirements for political issue groups and individuals.

This year's legislative session, which began May 9, has been marked by passage of an $18.9 billion state budget that grew thanks to a roughly $2 billion surplus; a ban on video poker machines by next July; and a $1 an hour increase in the minimum wage.

Democratic leaders hold the majority in both houses, and they are pleased with what some called the Legislature's most productive session ever.

"On opening day, we said what we were going to do," said Black. "We focused on education. We focused on improving the way this General Assembly operates."

Now that the session is wrapping up, lawmakers can put their full focus on November elections. Despite the controversy surrounding Black, he's kept a strong hold on his leadership position, and it remains to be seen if the Democrats will maintain their majorities in the Legislature.

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