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Picasso, Pork and the Public Interest
By J. Barlow Herget
Published: Jan. 24, 2005
RALEIGH - Gene Nichol, the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill, was chair of the 2004 Advisory Council on Lobbying Reform. He recalls a moment from the Council’s deliberations:
Members were debating how much you should spend on a gift for a legislator. An $80 steak dinner? A $40 Smithfield ham? What was a reasonable limit?
Finally, Nichol asked, “What is the public good in giving gifts to legislators?”
No one answered. Silence.
Nichol’s question helped persuade the Council to vote for a ban on just about all gifts to legislators. The “gift ban” was one of four major recommendation made by the panel to change the law regulating lobbyists.
The other three suggestions would:
*require lobbyists to disclose their spending on what is now called “goodwill” expenses;
*institute a “cooling off” period for legislators who stepped down to become lobbyists;
*provide money for stronger enforcement of current and future lobbying regulations.
Legislation incorporating the Council’s conclusions died in committee in the final days of the hurried 2004 short session. But Nichols and others are ready to do battle again in this year’s session and he believes the Council’s recommendations have momentum.
For example, he points to an alliance of groups such as Common Cause of North Carolina and Democracy North Carolina who back the suggested lobbying reform.
He also is encouraged that two powerful legislators, Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Chapel Hill, and Sen. Tony Rand, D-Fayetteville, sponsored last year’s bills. Hackney is Majority Leader in the House and Rand holds the same title in the Senate.
Lobbying changes might also get a boost from an unexpected group— freshmen legislators.
“I’ve talked to some of them, and they are getting bombarded with stuff from lobbyists. They’re concerned about it,” says Chris Heagarty, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.
Attorney Grier Martin, D-Raleigh, who will be sworn in Jan. 26 as a new House member, says of others in his class, “I think a lot of them are a little surprised by the sheer volume.”
Martin laughs, “I don’t have any horror stories -- yet.” He adds, seriously, “I am not comfortable with the system as it stands now.”
That system, which Nichol believes is one of the worst in the country, requires some regulation and reporting. A national report card on the subject by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington gave the state very low marks and helped prompt Secretary of State Elaine Marshall to create the Council examining the system.
It found that a big loophole in current expenditure reporting allows lobbyists to skip over money spent on “goodwill,” as long as no mention is made of specific bills. For example, a newspaper report last year told of a dinner at the N.C. Museum of Art and private viewing of the museum’s Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris exhibit.
A lobbyist for Smithfield Foods, a large pork producer, explained, “It’s not about us. It’s just about having a good time.” Right.
It’s the same for dinners at swank restaurants or tickets to ball games. The Council’s recommendation would close the loophole and require lobbyists to disclose such expenses.
“At a minimum, we need to shine a light so that the cockroaches will scurry away,” says Martin. “I want a bill that will shine that light.”
The gift ban would eliminate many of these perks. The cost of gifts to legislators would be limited to $25.
The “cooling off” requirement has been adopted by many states, as well as the U.S. Congress. North Carolina in recent years has seen several legislators who have stepped down and immediately gone to work as lobbyists. The practice raises conflict of interest questions about legislators’ previous votes that affected their new employers.
Hackney’s bill would have prohibited such moves until a legislator’s term had expired.
Heagarty, who is a registered lobbyist himself, says, “There actually are a lot of lobbyists interested in lobby reform, including me. There are ‘sweat equity’ lobbyists who rely on hard, dedicated work; there are expense account lobbyists; and there are others who are both. The system now is weighted toward those who have money.”
Rep. Verla Insko, D-Chapel Hill, a supporter of lobbying reform, concedes there are many competing “priority” issues facing the General Assembly, such as election reform. She believes that success is tied to educating voters. Insko says, “We’re going to have to depend on grass roots voices.”