Local Politics

Transfer tax, ethics reform shakes up lobbyist rankings

The influence of several lobbyists rose and fell based on their involvement in top issues, according to rankings by a nonpartisan group.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Lobbyists engaged in ethics reform and the battle over a tax on real estate sales were among the most influential in the General Assembly this year, according to a ranking released Monday.

The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, an independent, nonpartisan research group, rates lobbyists based on surveys of all legislators, registered lobbyists based in North Carolina and news media covering state government.

“During the legislative session, the real estate transfer tax and ethics reform were topics for a lot of debate and close votes, and lobbyists on both sides of both issues gained influence,” Ran Coble, the center’s executive director, said in a statement. “Hot topics and heated debates often are the path to increased influence for lobbyists who can keep a cool head during a long hot summer.”

Last year, lawmakers approved a 0.4 percent tax on real estate sales as one of two measures counties could use to raise revenue for growth-related issues like new schools and roads. A quarter-cent local sales tax was the other option.

Intense advertising campaigns by organizations representing developers and real estate agents helped defeat the transfer tax 20 straight times at the polls since last November. Opponents continued the charge during the legislative session, lobbying unsuccessfully for a repeal of the tax option.

John McMillan, a contract lobbyist who represents the North Carolina Association of Realtors, ranked second in the influential lobbyist list. Tim Kent and Rick Zechini, who also work for the association, placed 11th and 12th on the list – the first time they made the list.

The scandal that forced former House Speaker Jim Black to resign and plead guilty to state and federal corruption charges also brought down a few lobbyists.

Don Beason, who was ranked the most influential lobbyist in 2005 and had been in the top three since 1995, dropped to 35th in the latest rankings. During Black's federal sentencing last year, prosecutors disclosed that Beason had loaned Black $500,000.

Meredith Norris, a former staff aide to Black, dropped out of the rankings after placing 23rd in 2005-06. She was banned from lobbying after being found guilty of failing to register as a lobbyist for Scientific Games, a company that operates lotteries.

Meanwhile, Bob Hall, executive director of government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, jumped from 49th to 19th on the lobbyist list. The group filed the complaint with the State Board of Elections that launched the investigation into Black's campaign finances.

Five of the 55 most influential lobbyists are former members of the General Assembly: Roger Bone (No. 1), Zeb Alley (No. 5), Sandy Sands (No. 6), Chuck Neely (No. 45) and Steve Metcalf (No. 47). Rufus Edmisten (No. 23), is a former attorney general and secretary of state, Franklin Freeman (No. 4) and Jack Cozort (No. 8) are former appellate judges and Paul Wilms (No. 17) formerly headed the state Division of Environmental Management.

The legislature took steps in 2005 to slow the revolving door between the General Assembly and the lobbying corps. In 2007, when a new law on lobbying took effect, North Carolina became one of 30 states that require some form of “cooling off” period between public office and becoming a lobbyist.

The law applies only to legislators, and the six-month waiting period is shorter than the required time in all of the other 25 states that specify a time between legislative service and lobbying for private clients, Coble said.

“The rankings of the most influential lobbyists help citizens understand which key interests and organizations have clout with legislators in North Carolina,” he said. “The rankings shed light on what is often an invisible process. They also show changes in the lobbying profession and illustrate which issues were the hottest.”