Two lawmakers who went on a March trip to Miami with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina say they plan on paying the group for the trip.
State Reps. Marvin Lucas and Marcus Brandon said they will refund the group for the money, but added that they did not see any wrongdoing with the trip itself, which both described as educational and worthwhile.
“I thought it was ethical and above board, and that’s why I went,” Lucas said. “Rather than have any ambiguity, I’d rather pay it back.”
Lucas said he instructed his campaign treasurer to pay back the money this morning. Brandon said he hadn’t decided whether he’ll use campaign or his own money to reimburse Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) for the trip.
He said the ethics questions about the trip were distracting discussion from talking about state’s achievement gap black and minority children.
“I would rather have a question about why 360,000 kids are failing in school rather than this,” Brandon said.
The two Democratic House members were part of a bipartisan group of 11 lawmakers, including Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, that traveled to the Miami area on March 14 to 15 on a trip paid for by PEFNC. A 12th lawmaker, state Rep. Bryan Holloway, was scheduled to go but canceled, according to lobbying expense reports PEFNC filed.
State ethics law prevent lobbying groups from giving things of value to lawmakers and public officials, but an exception exists when a trip or meeting is for educational purposes. The State Ethics Commission advises groups to seek guidance before any trip, as whether a trip’s primary purpose is to influence or educate depends the situation. In PEFNC’s case, the group leaned on a 2008 advisory letter for a similar trip it organized for lawmakers in 2008 and did not appear to seek a separate ethics advisory opinion for the 2012 trip.
Bob Phillips of Common Cause North Carolina, a government watchdog group, has said the trip’s primary goal appears to have been to influence, and not just to educate, the lawmakers.
The March trip was to hear about a tax credit scholarship program in Florida, where businesses are given tax credits for private school scholarships to private schools. PEFNC spent $8,300 on the trip, according to lobbying expense records, and also paid for Jason Kay, Tillis’ legal counsel, and two PEFNC lobbyists to go on the trip. Darrel Allison, PEFNC’s director, said two business people also went on the trip to learn about the program, but did not identify them.
(Click here  to read N.C. Policy Watch’s report from last week on the trip.)
Several weeks after the trip, six of the lawmakers either on the trip or scheduled to be there received campaign contributions from a political-action-committee associated with PEFNC.
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican who was not on the trip, announced at a PEFNC lobbying day event that he will introduce legislation that would allows up to $40 million of tax credits for business to provide $4,000 scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools. Supporters of the program say it helps poor children access the same type of education as their more well-off counterparts. But critics of the tax credit program in other states say it takes away needed tax revenue for public schools and is a creative way of allowing public money to fund private, often religious, education.
UPDATE: The bill, House Bill 1104 , was filed Wednesday. The sponsors are Stam, Brandon, N.C. Reps. William Brisson and Mike Hager. Both Brandon and Hager went on the Miami trip.
Update, No. 2: Here’s the text of the letter Lucas sent to Darrell Allison, director of Parents for Educational Freedom for North Carolina.(Provided by the N.C. House Democratic Caucus).
May 23, 2012
Mr. Darrell Allison, President
Parents for Educational Freedom
In North Carolina
434 Fayetteville Street, Suite 1620
Raleigh, NC 27601
Dear Mr. Allison:
It has come to my attention that some interest groups have raised questions relative to the status of a recent trip to Miami, Florida. I received an invitation to participate in the trip in order to be informed of potential educational benefits for minority students.
Mr. Allison, please know that I personally was not lobbied in any way toward any pending or potential legislation in North Carolina.
Since queries have been raised, in the interest of total disclosure, I am refunding all costs of the trip.
Marvin W. Lucas, Representative