SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Hackney Walks Fine Line to Speakership
Joe Hackney missed his opportunity.
In his opening remarks as the new speaker of the state House, the Orange County Democrat could have borrowed some rhetorical flare from the late President Ford: "Our long state nightmare is over."
Of course, he didn't.
Hackney was elected to the House's top post precisely because he has walked a fine line this past year, avoiding any direct criticism of the man he is replacing, Jim Black, while making the case that he's concerned about eliminating any pay-to-play politics in Raleigh.
During a year in which federal and state investigators sifted through Black's campaign finances, Hackney was the House's go-to guy on lobbying and ethics reform.
Even so, he took a few hits in the press for his silence regarding Black.
Loyalty, though, is one of the more valuable commodities in legislative politics. Legislators who squander it are often punished, those who value it rewarded.
Last week, Hackney's Democratic colleagues rewarded him. In a party-line, 68-52 vote that surprised no one, the 61-year-old lawyer was elected speaker.
In a speech that followed his election and during a later news conference, Hackney again carefully avoided any criticism of Black, who despite stepping aside as speaker remains a member of the chamber.
Hackney even noted that Black, during his eight-year tenure as speaker, had been an advocate of such reforms as limiting policy provisions in the budget bill and prohibiting blank bills that act to restrict public review of public policy changes.
Still, Hackney's remarks and his past actions make clear that the one issue he's likely to continue putting his thumb print on is government ethics.
On a day when legislators and lobbyists were still moaning about the lobbying reforms adopted last year, the new speaker cited them as a national model and indicated that he wanted to go further.
"The people of North Carolina want us to continue to focus on our ethical obligations, to enforce the new standards, and to strive to improve them, and we will do so," Hackney said.
No doubt, the ethics reforms adopted last year -- which restrict the wining and dining of legislators by lobbyists, and demand that state government officials clearly lay out potential conflicts of interest -- will require some revisiting, revising and clarification.
Massive pieces of legislation typically do.
Some legislators will probably look at any re-appraisal of the new ethics law as an opportunity to weaken it, even though some loopholes cry out for tightening.
And as he has already indicated and as any new speaker would, Hackney's actions on any number of issues will certainly reflect the will of his fellow House Democrats.
But if his actions live up to his words, Hackney isn't likely to budge on the ethics law.
He, at least, understands that there is more at stake than a free meal or a campaign contribution. At stake is the people's confidence in the integrity of General Assembly.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at smooneyh@ ncinsider.com
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