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And some people say the end of a session is a circus. They must have been watching the passage of House Bill 2542 the bill passed by lawmakers during the waning days of the 2008 session to "clarify ethics and lobbying laws."  

It was a lot like a magic act as the General Assembly worked on 'technical' amendments to North Carolina's Ethics Law –Now you see it! Now you don’t! And no one seems to know how (or why) it was done. There was lots of back and forth in the last week of the session about the ethics bill which was in theory merely a technical correction, but somehow the bill ended up as 28 pages long and with more than technical corrections in it. 

The high point of this bill is probably what wasn’t in it –a very large (the size of a Sherman tank) loophole to the gift ban exemption which showed up about 2:30 Thursday afternoon in the proposed Committee substitute in the Senate Select Committee on Elections and Government Reform. It allowed for a gift ban exemption that would have allowed legislators, legislative employees, and public employees to have someone other than the state of North Carolina pay for their food, beverages, registration, travel, lodging, entertainment, and items of nominal value provided in conjunction or in connection with a meeting or conference. It did require that the person get prior authorization for their attendance at the meeting. It didn’t require that they get prior authorization for someone to pay for them. 

No one seemed to know who was going to tell legislators whether or not they could attend a conference – the Speaker, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, George Hall. No one was willing to take credit for the provision. According to the Senate, the House put it in and according to the House, it must have been the Senate.  In the end, with enough pressure from the Coalition and friends, the provision was pulled.

The bill also redefines what a public event is. Legislators said that they didn’t really mean “public events” where the statues now say “public events”. These events were never really meant to be open to the public. Generally, they are social events (receptions) for members of the General Assembly, legislative employees, or public servants  along with lobbyists, lobbyists’ principals, and members of organizations, groups, associations, etc. To clarify what they meant, they divided “public events “ into three categories.

-A meeting of a public body such as a city council as long as the notice of the meeting follows the Open Meetings Law.

-A gathering of an organization with at least ten people in attendance with a sign, or other indication that it is open to the public.

-A gathering of a person or governmental unit to which the entire board of which a public servant is a member, at least 10 public servants, all the members of the House of Representatives, all the members of the Senate, all the members of a county or municipal legislative delegation, all the members of a recognized legislative caucus with regular meetings other than meetings with one or more lobbyists, all the members of a committee, a standing subcommittee, a joint committee or joint commission of the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the General Assembly, or all legislative employees are invited.

There are conditions not really different form existing law except that only 24 hours is required for an invitation which must be written and one of the following applies: The "official" reason for the 24 hour notice is that the members of the General Assembly are worried about their safety if there is more public notice than 24 hours given about an event.  We have already made it clear that we dislike this section that we want transparency about these events and will try to change the law in the long session.

On the House side, we also managed to remove a provision about scholarships to meetings like NCSL. It showed up in a less obnoxious though far from perfect form in negotiations about concurrence on Friday along with a couple of other things.  Unfortunately, the last of those negotiations took place about 4- 4:15 on Friday so we couldn’t get exactly what we wanted. The final language does allow for scholarships to meetings related to legislative positions and official duties. Most of the rest of the bill is truly technical amendments – clarifying words, etc.  However, there are a few substantive things.

For example, the State Ethics Commission (SEC) will no longer issue an evaluation of each statement of economic interest (SEI) since they (the SEC) believes that everything can be a conflict of interest for legislators since the scope of their responsibilities is so broad. Legislators will be notified within 7 days of an allegation made about them to the SEC, the SEC will have 7 days after the submission of a completed SEI to make any recommendations or decisions about the appointees to the UNC Board of Governors or Community College Boards of trustees. The SEC will have to publish redacted opinions within thirty days after the Commission makes a decision and issues a formal opinion.

In sum, while there are a few minor improvements to the Ethics Act in this bill, it is not a step forward.  The General Assembly needs to know that North Carolinians demand the highest standards of honesty and openness. We're not there yet.  

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For more than two years the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform has pushed for increased openness in the legislative procedure, especially the budget process. We have made some progress and the NC General assembly has taken some positive steps. However, the current session highlights the need for greater openness and transparency and for making additional improvements in the budget process. We believe these improvements are in the best interest of continuing to restore public trust in government.

We firmly believe that there is a better way. The process should

·         Be more open and accountable with decisions made in public

·         Operate within a framework with an organized procedure, time frames and deadlines

·         Contain a prohibition against non-money items or special provisions in the budget

·         Allow legislators three days to review the budget after it is unveiled

·         Make all budget information available via the internet as it is printed

·         Copies of any proposed budgets from the Governor’s office or the State budget office or      departments must be available at least twenty four hours before they are presented to the appropriations or finance committees

·         Make all information available to legislators and legislative staff on the internal computer system available to the public on the internet

·         Have at least twenty four hours for review of any proposed committee substitute by both legislators and the public prior to being discussed in a committee or a sub-committee meeting

·         All committee or subcommittee meetings must be announced to members, staff, and public at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting

·         All meetings must be held in meeting rooms in the Legislative Building or Legislative Office Building – not around a members desk, in their office or in a hallway

·         All Finance or Appropriations Committee, subcommittee  or Conference meetings must be available to the public via streaming and then available via real time audio and television  broadcast once the systems are established at the General Assembly.  

If the North Carolina General Assembly wants to continue to enjoy the confidence and support of our citizens, then it must open up this critical process and create a budget that truly belongs to the people of North Carolina.  In the May 6th primary, North Carolinians proved that they are more than willing to participate in our government if they believe in it and if given a chance.  Now is the time to give them that chance – make the budget process something that is open to all citizens. 

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Earlier this week, Boyce Hudson, a former official with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) pled guilty to charges of extortion.  Part of what Hudson received in payment as part of that extortion was a lucrative two year consulting contract with the company that was the target of his extortion and which benefited from his actions while he was at DENR . Hudson’s behavior is extreme but it does help highlight two key problems in North Carolina government.

Our state employees, most of whom work very hard to provide us with essential services, keep the state functioning and keep us safe, frequently earn far less in their jobs than they could working in the private sector. Too often, people come and learn their crafts while working for the state and then move on to private companies.

Unfortunately, even with the ethics reforms done in the last three years, there is still an open revolving door which allows someone to work for the state of North Carolina on Friday and on Monday morning be at work for a private company lobbying the people with whom they used to work. Our legislators and state agency heads have to wait at least six months after they leave public service before they can lobby their former colleagues. US Senators have to wait two years before they can do the same.

There needs to be a cooling off period for top level state employees before they can go to work for the businesses they have been regulating, supervising and granting contracts to. In 2005, Senator Rand included a cooling off period of in Senate Bill 612, the first of the major reform bills. It is time to enact that legislation and not wait for another example of misdeeds to pop to the surface.

 

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Matt Clark

Keeping you Updated:

One of the projects that we’ve been working on this year is a survey to all candidates in the upcoming state elections. We hope it will serve as a barometer to gauge the candidates’ stance on ethics related issues.  The survey is open ended, and focuses on the often problematic relationship between lobbyists and legislators.  An open ended survey allows candidates to respond more precisely to the question posed, thus providing you and us a more complete picture of a candidate’s stance on issues.  Of the 370 surveys sent out, more than half have been returned, and we are continuing to receive responses.  We have gone to great lengths to ensure as many candidates as possible will respond, in an effort to provide the most comprehensive picture of state ethics support possible.  To date, each non-respondent has been contacted via telephone to check the status of our survey, once again, in hopes of coming as close to a full response rate as possible.

Some of the specifics the survey addresses include the legitimacy of lobbyists conducting fund raising ventures for candidates, support for “sunshine” legislation that would require disclosure of the name and occupation of anyone contributing more than $10,000 to a campaign, and restrictions on political parties for donating to candidates.  The survey also questions lobbyists’ involvement with PACs and asks if members of the Council of State should be allowed to solicit money for charities.  These issue areas allow us to discern how a candidate feels towards ethics issues, and will provide a reference point for drafting legislation or soliciting support for ethics issues in the future. 

Of particular interest to us are the gubernatorial candidates, and thus far we have received responses from the entire field.  Sunshine legislation and a strict adherence to ethics laws are important for any elected official, and in the case of the chief executive, this importance is magnified greatly.  Additionally, an executive who strongly favors campaign finance reform and greater transparency in the relationships between lobbyists and legislators will be a valuable ally in advancing an ethics related agenda in the future. 

The Raleigh News & Observer recently featured an article about our survey and the gubernatorial candidates’ responses.  This article and other information about the survey can be found at our website www.nclobbyreform.org.  Additionally, you can see what your elected representative said to our survey, and help in the process to keep them accountable on ethics related issues. 

Limiting the role of special interest money in politics is imperative to ensure citizens and constituencies are represented in a manner that is congruent with the spirit and letter of the laws of a democratic political system.  When external forces govern an elected official’s agenda, the representative system ceases to be an instrument of the people, and instead becomes a vehicle through which to advance personal interests of a select group.  The aim of sunshine legislation and ethics reform is to reduce the opportunity for these groups to circumvent the political process; thereby ensuring voters will remain the central focus in state politics.

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Representatives Rick Glazier, Paul Stam, Marvin Lucas, William McGee, Edith Warren and Laura Wylie should be getting thank you notes from people all over the state. As members of the House Select  Committee to Investigate Alleged Misconduct/Other Matters Included in Indictments Re: Rep Wright With Representative Glazier as chair and Representative Stam as co-chair, and backed by an outstanding staff, they took on the unpleasant, unwanted and unrewarding job of reviewing the evidence against Representative Thomas Wright and then judging him.  They cared out this unpalatable task with a professionalism, objectivity, judiciousness and seriousness that are to be admired, commended and remembered.  Rep. Glazier set the standard with his calm, unbiased demeanor.  From the start of the proceedings when the committee began to review evidence to decide what to pursue, Glazier and Stam have led the committee in a slow, careful, purposeful way.  The same attention to the “right” way to do things has been an integral part of the Committee’s proceedings all the time. It was all out in the open for anyone who wanted to attend, listen to it on the computer or read the newspaper.  Unlike similar occasions in the last two hundred years, it happened in an open committee room and not behind a closed door. It is this transparency and openness in government for which our coalition has been and will continue to fight.   Regardless of whether you like the Committee’s decision to recommend that Rep. Wright be expelled or not, we all need to commend the committee members and staff for taking on this tough and unpleasant task and completing it in an exemplary manner. They have gone a long way towards restoring our faith in the democratic process and deserve our thanks.  

Jane Pinsky

Director

North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.