We published this report yesterday about a school choice group that paid for N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis and a bipartisan group of lawmakers to learn about a controversial tax credit scholarship program in Miami.
A big unanswered question is whether the trip is allowed under North Carolina’s strict lobbying laws, which ban lobbyists from giving anything of value under most situations.
The crux seems to be what the purpose of the trip was — if it was to educate, then it’s okay. But if the trip’s goal was to influence lawmakers, then it’s not an allowable exception to the gift ban.
Bob Phillips of the government watchdog group Common Cause said he believes the trip violates ethics laws.
Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina maintains the trip was okay, because it was an educational trip about the Florida program that gives companies state credits when they donate money to send low-income children to private schools. The program worries many supporters of public education, because it diverts needed tax revenue away from public schools to a private school system that isn’t accountable to taxpayers.
The group has made no secret that it wants to bring the program here, and PEFNC director Darrell Allison said in a podcast on an education reform website that the Florida trip could lead to the North Carolina General Assembly bringing the tax credit program here.
Allison justified the trip in March with a 2008 ethics advisory letter it got for a different trip to Florida, but did not seek prior clearance from the State Ethics Commission for the March trip.
I asked PEFNC for a copy of that 2008 advisory letter on May 2, but was never provided a copy.
Allison did give a copy to WRAL’s Mark Binker yesterday, and you can see the letter here, as well as the entire WRAL post here. (And, to throw up one more link, you can also see some of the public records related to the trip that I used here.)
The advisory letter clearly show that PEFNC got the okay for the 2008 trip, but is limited to only that trip.
From the 2008 letter:
PEFNC will need to report the total amount it spends for this trip on it (sic) lobbyist principal report that it is required to file with the Secretary of State’s Office because, as we discussed, as well as being educational this trip is also to influence these participating legislators to support legislation in North Carolina similar to the Florida legislation that established tax credits for these special needs schools, known as the McKay Scholarship Schools.