Institutional Reforms Are What's Lacking
One of the more disappointing aspects of the rounds of ethics reform that North Carolina legislators have passed in recent years is how little institutional reform was included.
Ethics reform - whether it involves cutting out lobbyists-paid meals at swanky steakhouses or increasing criminal penalties for those who willfully violate campaign donor limits - inevitably means some finger-pointing. After all, the series of ethic laws passed since 2006 didn't come about because all our elected officials were leading squeaky-clean lives.
So it's not surprising when some of those targeted by these laws, but accused of no wrongdoing, feel a bit offended. Over the past few years, I've heard more than one lobbyists say something to the effect of, "We're slime. Haven't you heard?"
Some legislators surely feel the same way.
But political preservation demanded a response to scandals that rocked the legislature and state government. So legislators bit their tongues and put a litany of new ethics requirements into law.
They haven't felt compelled to do the same for institutional reforms that can't be characterized as a response to any shortcomings by the elected. Rather, they're needs-created by a changing world and shifting political dynamics.
House Speaker Joe Hackney recently renewed talk of limiting the terms of House and Senate leaders after saying that he may restrict himself to three terms in the job. Even a third term would be contingent on Democrats keeping control of the chamber and Hackney's re-election to his own seat.
Before the mid-1970s, House speakers restricted themselves to a single two-year term. The Senate was overseen by the lieutenant governor limited to a single four-year term.
Then North Carolina voters agreed to allow the governor and lieutenant governor to run for a second term. House speakers decided that they should have longer terms too. A Democratic Senate stripped a Republican lieutenant governor of power, giving the chamber's leadership to someone elected by the body, the Senate president pro tem.
In the 1990s, a more competitive political landscape led to more legislative campaign fundraising. The money flowed through chamber leaders, making it more difficult than ever for them to walk away from the positions.
The obvious result has been a concentration of power.
As those changes occurred, the legislature became older, populated by a growing number of retirees. Who else could take a job that paid $13,000 a year in salary and a $104 a day stipend?
Meanwhile, the population grew and the economy became more diverse. Lawmaking became more complex and took longer and longer each year. Eventually, legislators changed the rules designed to govern their behavior. They never really changed the rules that govern the legislating apparatus.
They never considered a full-time legislature with full-time pay. For three decades, they haven't asked voters what they think about extending legislative terms to four years.
Apparently, they fear that voters will see those ideas as cynical power grabs.
Ironically, they're exactly the kind of thing that has nothing to do with anyone's bad behavior.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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