SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Fresh Start for the Legislature?
New rules of the game. New leaders. A fresh start.
But will it really be?
Certainly, when the new legislative session begins on Jan. 24., the House in particular will be presented with an opportunity for a fresh start after eight years of being headed by Mecklenburg County Democrat Jim Black.
Orange County lawyer Joe Hackney will likely be named speaker. Davidson County businessman Hugh Holliman will be the majority leader for the majority-party Democrats.
After more than a year of scandal and a federal investigation focused on Black's dealings, Hackney and Holliman offer the kind of remedy the House needed. Both men have well-earned reputations for their basic integrity.
The two (assuming Democrats hold together to elect Hackney speaker) will lead the House into a session with new rules governing legislator and lobbyist behavior.
The new ethics rules, though far from perfect, should cut down on the wining and dining of legislators by lobbyists. They will also force legislators to be more wary of potential conflicts of interest.
Still, without further institutional reforms of the legislature -- and not necessarily those that rank-and-file legislators would oppose -- the concentration of power within the top leadership positions will continue to have a corrupting effect.
Anyone who has been observing the legislature for very long eventually discerns a pattern of behavior that says more about human nature than the character of those involved.
When new leaders are selected, they rely on several of their colleagues to make important policy and budget decisions. Power is diffuse.
Over time, the number of people whom those leaders truly allow decision-making authority dwindles. The circle becomes tighter. Power becomes concentrated.
The character of either legislative chamber's leaders won't change that basic dynamic. Institutional reform -- limiting the House speaker and Senate president pro tem to two two-year terms -- will.
Asked about such limits, Hackney has responded like a kid perched on a cliff above a quarry pond, peering down into the water below. "I'll go if you go," he tells a buddy standing alongside. The "buddy" in this case would be Senate leader Marc Basnight.
Prohibiting political parties from giving unlimited contributions to legislators would also help dilute the power of the House speaker and Senate president pro tem, preventing them from using the parties as conduits for their campaign fund-raising.
Finally, if legislators really want a clean slate, they could bundle institutional changes designed to diffuse power with some constitutional proposals that would make the legislature run more smoothly.
The people of North Carolina should acknowledge that if they want good laws and good government they need to put those decisions in the hands of professionals, not alleged part-time citizen legislators who are really neither.
A full-time legislature, in which lawmakers are provided full-time pay, would probably result in a more qualified class of legislators that looked at lot more like North Carolinians as a whole.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at smooneyh
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