Ethics Obstacles: Reform Bill May Face Snags in Raleigh
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
By mark johnson
And J. Andrew Curliss
The News & Observer
Gov. Bev Perdue and advocates for -government reform face at least two obstacles in trying to nudge a series of ethics and campaign-finance law changes through the legislature that started its session Wednesday.
First, the proposed reforms have to compete with the economy and jobs for lawmakers' attention. And second, any reforms will bump up against skeptics, said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform.
"The roadblock is going to be in the Senate," Pinsky said.
This week the Senate and House begin their sequel, the second act of their two-year terms. But they have made a major character change.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat and self-described mountain populist, takes on the role of Senate majority leader. He'll act as a gatekeeper for what legislation makes it to the floor of the Senate for a vote, and one arena where Nesbitt's newly enhanced influence likely will show up, among others, is -government reform.
Ethics and campaign-finance reform -naturally fall a little ways down the list of -priorities. The so-called "short session" of the legislature, held in even-numbered years, was -created primarily to adjust the state budget, so nonfinancial bills are kept to a minimum.
Budget work will turn particularly unpleasant this year, given the recession-driven -nosedive in state revenue. Nesbitt said he wants lawmakers focused on jobs, education and access to health care.
"I'm going to post that list in a prominent place," he said. "We've got to find a way to help North Carolina recover."
Government reform, though, is bound to get a little of the oxygen in the room because of pressure from Perdue's initiative and the lingering pall of an investigation surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley. And the state House last year passed a series of ethics measures that are still on the table.
Room for Reform
"We will have a package of good-government reforms this session," Nesbitt said. "I don't want to overstate it because this session isn't about that."
He emphasized that lawmakers passed ethics and lobbying reforms in past sessions, all of which he voted for, but this summer should be focused on that list of priorities.
Senate leader Marc Basnight is taking a -similar approach: "I have not studied [Perdue's reform package] with the attention that it will get," the Manteo Democrat said. "The budget has controlled my focus."
Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, the GOP Senate leader, said the session should be plenty long enough to take up the reform measures, -especially with both liberal and conservative groups backing them.
"Those are the kinds of things that should not generate a lot of opposition," Berger said.
Nesbitt expressed no outright opposition to any of the ideas Perdue has introduced. He offered, though, a broad caution about the importance of watching out for unforeseen consequences, and he raised questions on each proposal.
Perdue proposed banning contractors with the state from making political contributions to public officials who oversee those contracts. Nesbitt agrees contractors need to be watched.
"Exactly how you do that," he said, "I don't know."
Trio of Bills
Perdue would impose a one-year cooling-off period before high ranking, departing state officials could go to work for a company they regulated or work as a lobbyist.
"Conceptually that's a good idea," Nesbitt said, "but to what extent can I regulate people when they go out into the private sector to seek employment?"
Perdue wants a gift ban for all state employees.
"Not giving gifts seems to be a good idea," Nesbitt added, "as long as it's well-defined."
On top of Perdue's proposals, a Senate committee led by Nesbitt has on its agenda a trio of reform bills the House overwhelmingly passed last year.
"We have promised [the House] the bills will get a hearing," he said, but added there are -problems with each one.
House Speaker Joe Hackney said he does not expect the bills to get bogged down in the Senate.
"They want an opportunity to look at them and consider them carefully," Hackney said. "They'll be doing that, but I'm confident they'll pass in large part."
The bills would create a -cooling-off period for top -administration officials, ban -contractors from certain campaign contributions and require appointees to many state boards and commissions to disclose both the money that they gave -directly to candidates and the money that they raised from other contributors.
Nesbitt said appointees' direct contributions are already -available through the State Board of Elections filings, and he -questioned how to determine who is responsible for raising -contributions from other donors at, for example, a large -fundraiser organized by multiple people.
"I don't want to get people in trouble asking them a year later to report something they may not have good records for," Nesbitt said, musing that such regulation of fundraising activities may have to be tackled in separate legislation.
Brush With Ethics Law
Nesbitt said his angst over unintended consequences springs from his training as a lawyer, not from his own unpleasant experience with state ethics laws.
Former State Auditor Les Merritt in 2008 said Nesbitt failed to disclose that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina sponsored his son's race car team, for which Nesbitt was volunteer crew chief.
Blue Cross frequently has -matters that come before the -legislature. Nesbitt, though, -previously had asked the State Ethics Commission whether he needed to put the sponsorship on his disclosure form and was told he didn't.
The scuffle led lawmakers to draft legislation clarifying that the ethics commission, not the auditor, is in charge of ethics questions.
More like this story