N.C. Policy Watch, a research arm of the liberal N.C. Justice Center, published a story today that details how a group that lobbies for alternatives to public schools paid for a 11 lawmakers to travel to Florida.
Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina sponsored at March 14 and 15 trip to Miami for House Speaker and 9 other lawmakers. A 11th lawmaker was scheduled to go but canceled according to a disclosure form filed with the Secretary of State's lobbying compliance office. From the Policy Watch piece:
"The March 14 to 15 trip to the Miami area was for lawmakers to learn about Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarships Program, a controversial initiative that gives dollar-for-dollar state tax credits to encourage companies to donate scholarship money for low-income children attending private schools, according to Darrell Allison, the director and chief lobbyist for Parents for Educational Freedom (PEFNC)."
Lawmakers reportedly met with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during the trip and heard from others who support the program.
Darrell Allison, PEFNC's president, said that Florida is one of eight states with a similar law that offers tax write-offs in exchange for contributions to a scholarship fund that helps low-income students go to private schools.
While there's no bill filed to create the same kind of program in North Carolina, Allison said he'd like to see North Carolina create a similar program "as soon as possible."
The idea strikes a nerve with those who worry that such programs drain resources from traditional public schools. Voucher programs, which give public funding to students who transfer out of public schools, are a particularly contentious subject. While Florida's program doesn't move tax dollars directly to private schools, it does redirect funds that would have otherwise come into the state to private education.
But Allison said that shouldn't be a concern.
"There are 2.6 million children that are educated in traditional public schools in Florida," he said. "You have 40,000 children who are participating in this program."
The Policy Watch piece suggests that Allison's group may have run afoul of lobbying laws that say lobbyists can't provide lawmakers anything of value with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions involves trips that are educational.
Bob Phillips, director of the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, who also was quoted in the Policy Watch piece, told me that he thought this trip may have crossed a line from education into lobbying. While there was definitely some education, he said, PEFNC was certainly trying to win lawmakers to their point of few and prompt them to pass a certain kind of legislation.
"Lobbying is seeking executive or legislative action," Phillips said.
Allison said that he conducted a similar trip in 2008. At that time, he said, the State Ethics Commission produced a confidential opinion (linked here) that said the trip was within the scope of lobbying laws. PEFNC relied on that same opinion when designing the trip lawmakers took earlier this year. You can see the March 2012 agenda here.
"We didn't spike the juice. We didn't throw dollars in anybody's pocket," he said. The trip, he said, was focused on business and nobody had time to enjoy the beach.