Ethics Reform Restores Some Equilibrium
Gauging the historical significance of the moment isn't an easy task. So perhaps the political upheaval and scandal in North Carolina over the past five or six years will turn into just a footnote in the state's political history, blotted out by future events.
I don't think so.
Criminal investigations that send a state House speaker off to prison, led to the indictment of a top lieutenant of a former governor and put that former governor under threat of indictment are not historical norms for North Carolina.
That's not to suggest that politics and scandal of one sort or the other haven't always gone together. It always will when, as Will Rogers once said, politics is really just the art of divvying up the swag.
Until recently, state contracting was where political scandal usually reared its head in North Carolina. That's no longer the case, because of shifts in money and power.
It's no coincidence that Jim Black became just the second House speaker to serve more than two terms, the first Democratic speaker to oversee a modern-day, multimillion-dollar fundraising operation, and the first to be sent to prison.
It may be no coincidence that Mike Easley was just the second governor to enjoy veto power and the first to use it, and is now the subject of a serious criminal investigation.
These scandals have only arisen as political power has become more concentrated among the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tem. They've only happened as the money moving through legislative campaigns has gone from a dribble to a torrent.
Obviously, some people have performed better under this test of power than Black or Easley. That doesn't mean that the test hasn't become tougher. But the test could also become easier in the future.
Defenders of Black and Easley would say that one of the reasons they ran into trouble is because the rules weren't so clear.
Whether you agree with that assessment or not, prior to 2005, North Carolina's laws to ensure that elected and appointed officials kept it out of the ditch didn't contemplate six-figure legislative campaigns and modern-day fundraising operations in which legislative leaders raised millions.
Three separate batches of ethics reform laws passed by the legislature over the last five years are an inevitable response to that money and the need to draw brighter lines in the fray around it.
State lawmakers passed the latest ethics reforms in the wee hours of Saturday morning, just before adjourning for the year.
Like their earlier efforts, the legislation will make for better government. It makes criminal penalties tougher for exceeding donation limits by giving in the name of an employee or someone else. It requires that more fundraising activities be disclosed. It allows the public to know more about state worker raises, promotions or firings.
The latest laws draw those clearer lines. And they do something else: They seek to restore some equilibrium to a state of -politics that's been missing it for some time.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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