Local Politics

Ethics, ABC reforms inch forward

Posted July 7, 2010 5:29 p.m. EDT
Updated July 7, 2010 6:49 p.m. EDT

— With less than three days left in the 2010 legislative session, lawmakers worked furiously to try to hammer out details and vote on bills that would reform government ethics rules and the state's liquor sales system.

The House and Senate approved competing ethics bills Tuesday, and legislators sniped at each other Wednesday about the major difference in their proposals.

The House wants to curb so-called "pay to play" politics by limiting how much state contractors can contribute to political campaigns. The Senate supports studying the issue for another few months.

"It's about whether or not contractors can give money to people who are deciding on their contract," said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt said he doesn't believe the House bill is fair. The Senate has worked on ethics reform for the past year – the House passed two ethics-related bills in that time – to try to find a fair way to address the issue, he said.

"They want to say that people who contract with the state can't contribute. Their competitors can," said Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. "It creates an unfairness in the business community about people who might do business with the state."

It was unclear whether the two sides will be able to reach an agreement before lawmakers head home for the year late Friday or early Saturday.

"I don't think anybody wants to leave here without an ethics package," Ross said. "So, I'm confident we'll have an ethics package, and I'm confident we'll be dealing with pay to play."

The Senate was poised to vote Wednesday night on a separate bill to reform the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control system after the Senate Finance Committee passed it Wednesday morning.

The bill includes salary and travel restrictions for local ABC board members and staffers and addresses conflicts of interest.

"It makes the local ABC boards, who are appointed by local governments, more accountable," said Jon Williams, chairman of the state ABC Commission.

The ABC board in Mecklenburg County came under fire late last year for allowing a distiller to pick up the $12,700 tab for a dinner for board members, employees and their families. The board later reimbursed the company for much of the cost of the dinner.

Meanwhile, the administrator of the ABC system in New Hanover County and his son earned $380,000 in salaries and bonuses to oversee liquor sales and also stayed in resort hotels and flew first-class to attend conferences.

The state ABC Commission in January banned liquor companies from providing anything of value to ABC employees, but the state commission had no power to enforce reforms on locally appointed ABC boards.