Avoiding Another Defection
Ten years ago last week, Michael Decker carved out a special place in North Carolina legislative history for himself.
Decker, a Forsyth County Republican, had been a back-bencher known mostly for his conservative stands on social issues. Among his fellow House Republicans, he was not seen as an especially capable legislator.
After the 2002 elections, when Republicans won a scant 61-59 majority, the GOP looked as if it would control the House chamber.
Then Decker did the unthinkable.
He switched political parties. That switch ultimately led to a co-speakership between the previous Democratic House speaker, Jim Black, and Republican Richard Morgan.
Three years later, Decker would plead guilty in federal court to taking $50,000 from Black in exchange for his party switch.
Well before that guilty plea, Decker's use of campaign donations, most of them arranged by Black, became the subject of critical news pieces.
Decker tapped his campaign coffers to fly to Florida, buy a van and drive back to North Carolina. He wrote checks from his campaign account to pay hotel bills when in Raleigh.
In response to these revelations and the wider-ranging scandal that sent Black to prison, legislators passed a series of ethics laws that, among other things, prohibited legislators from spending campaign money on personal expenses.
But they also created an exemption for expenses associated with "holding public office."
The idea was that it would be better to spend campaign dollars rather than tax dollars to furnish a legislative office beyond the minimum or send flowers for the funeral of a former legislator.
Legislators seem to be racking up a lot of these office-holding expenses lately.
Recent campaign finance reports show that many state lawmakers are charging off tens of thousands of dollars in "office holding" expenses to their campaign accounts. The expenses include meals at steakhouses, rent paid for Raleigh housing during legislative sessions, air travel and even parking tickets.
They can charge off those expenses because state election officials have determined that any spending is OK as long as a candidate can say that he or she would not have spent the money if not for their elected office.
One legislator, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Cabarrus County Republican, may have run afoul of even that loose standard.
His campaign account is being audited after his campaign finance reports showed him spending $100,000 over the past two years paying off credit card bills.
This dipping into the campaign account is not surprising when considering how little legislators make - $13,800 for a rank-and-file lawmaker, plus per diem and other expense payments that can bring total compensation to about $40,000.
As Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina notes, legislators are on duty whether the legislature is in session or not. They shouldn't be expected to spend money out their own pockets to respond to a constituent.
The law still needs clarification, perhaps tied to a boost in pay for legislators.
Spending a little more tax money on our legislators is worth the price of avoiding another Michael Decker.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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