N.C. Ethics Reform: Decent Start, but . . .
We prefer to think of it as half-full, considering that the tumbler was virtually bone-dry when the Honorables convened only a few months ago. Give them credit for the rather remarkable progress they have made in that short time, we say. Give them the benefit of the doubt that -- with a little more prodding -- they won't neglect to fill the glass nearer to the brim in future sessions.
The Senate and House left some big goals unmet:
-- They failed to approve a provision barring legislative lobbyists from engaging in fundraising activities for politicians.
-- Though they sharply restricted gifts from lobbyists to legislators, they didn't outlaw all of them. For instance, they made an exception for lobbyists who are "old friends" of General Assembly members. But sometimes gifts and other blandishments bestowed on legislators by special-interest groups is the very kind of thing of which "old friends" are made.
-- Most important from The Pilot's point of view is a lapse that deserves a separate comment of its own later: A provision in the newly approved legislation keeps ethics complaints secret from the public (including the press) until after sanctions, if any, are imposed. That hardly amounts to government in the sunshine.
With those substantial caveats, the General Assembly still deserves considerable credit for a good-faith effort to close a number of gaping holes in the state's ethics, lobbying and campaign-finance regulations. In some cases, those holes were big enough to drive a semi through, as a spate of embarrassing ethical scandals has demonstrated in the past year or so.
Among other things, the new legislation prohibits lobbyists from making contributions to politicians or bundling multiple contributions. It prevails upon public officials to inform the new Ethics Commission more fully about their financial holdings. It empowers the commission to investigate complaints against officials in all three branches: executive, legislative and judicial.
Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, who represents a small chunk of Moore County, came down on the wrong side on the issue of keeping complaints secret. But he played a key role in shepherding other parts of the legislation through sometimes reluctant committees. This is not the last word in ethics reform, but it's a respectable start.
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