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Critics, Legislators At Odds Over Revised Ethics Bill

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RALEIGH, N.C. — For months, lawmakers have negotiated an ethics proposal that may change the way lobbyists and lawmakers do business. But critics say the latest legislation could be a setback for North Carolina.

Under old North Carolina law, lobbyists could treat lawmakers to rounds of golf or fancy dinners without reporting a dime, as long as there was no formal discussion of legislation. It was called the goodwill lobbying loophole.

Lawmakers closed the loophole last year. Now, in a year where ethics and lobbying reform took center stage, one word could reopen that door of influence. In the definition of gifts, the latest Senate bill exempts anything deemed "personal."

"That would completely undermine the bill passed last year that closed the goodwill lobbying loophole," said Bob Phillips of N.C. Common Cause.

Phillips leads the coalition that's still fighting to toughen ethics laws. He said he worries that watering down reform legislation would shut out sunshine in government.

"It should be clean," he said. "Anything a lobbyist gives a lawmaker should be reported regardless of the relationship, unless it's family."

Many lawmakers and lobbyists argue it's not that simple. They said that gift bans could be too burdensome, especially when lawmakers and lobbyists are old friends.

"We can't write things that are so restrictive that people can't even operate," said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie.

Another apparent casualty in the ethics debate is the a proposal to ban almost all gifts from lobbyists. Some lawmakers believe the distrust has gone too far.

Rep. Drew Saunders, D-Mecklenburg, once said the baby Jesus wasn't corrupted by gifts.

"The taking of gifts does not corrupt a person," said Saunders. "It's when you're taking those gifts for personal gain that they corrupt you."

Lawmakers defending the ethics legislation as it stands, pointing out that campaign finance laws have already passed. They also said the final product will make significant changes in policing how government does business.

The House could take up the conference bill on Wednesday.