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Wednesday, 28 June 2006 00:00

Once and for all, stop the influence peddling in Raleigh

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For most people who live and work in Western North Carolina, the inner workings of our citizen legislature in Raleigh are just about as arcane as the inner workings of the federal Congress in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, it also suffers from the same malaise — too much influence is held by lobbyists whose goal is to help themselves and their clients, not the state’s citizens.

Unless lawmakers act quickly, things aren’t going to change anytime soon. A proposal that would curb the influence of money and lobbyists — which came from the hard work of a bipartisan task force — is still languishing in committee. The short legislative session is expected to end in mid-July. In all likelihood citizens aren’t going to be able to head into this fall’s campaign season reassured that our legislators really have their best interests at heart.

The Smoky Mountain News sent a reporter to Raleigh a couple of weeks ago to observe the legislature. We don’t report on the General Assembly often, but the atmosphere in the legislative building still came as a bit of a shock. Not only were paid corporate lobbyists omnipresent, citizen groups and individuals were also all over the General Assembly. The fact is that lawmakers have a lot of tough choices to make, and they get plenty of suggestions as to how they should vote.

That’s why the ethics and lobbying reform laws are so important. Citizen groups who are part of grassroots lobbying efforts should never be regulated away. But the professional lobbyists need to be more tightly controlled. Led by North Carolina’s Common Cause group, here’ what lawmakers have been asked to do:

• Ban all gifts from lobbyists.

• Ban campaign contributions from lobbyists.

• Create an independent ethics panel.

These requests are not extraordinary. According to Bob Phillips of Common Cause North Carolina, North Carolina is now among the half of states in the country who have not yet enacted tougher lobbying reforms.

“Twenty six states ban or restrict lobbyists from providing gifts to state legislators. North Carolina imposes no limits. Lobbyists may spend unlimited amounts of money on lawmakers,” according to Phillips. “South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee ban or restrict lobbyists from raising big campaign dollars and giving campaign contributions to legislative candidates. North Carolina has no such restrictions. Lobbyists may raise unlimited amounts of campaign cash for legislative and statewide candidates.”

Supporting efforts to limit the influence of lobbyists does not mean we think lawmakers are bought and paid for. In fact, the opposite is true. Most lawmakers are upstanding citizens trying to do public service. John Hood, the president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, says better laws will simply reinforce this truth: “Most of our state legislators and Council of State officials serve honorably and they deserve laws that reflect and reinforce their honest spirit.”

Ask almost any elected official and they’ll confess that lobbyists play an important role in writing laws. They are the experts on many complicated issues, which means they provide much-needed advice. The problem is that they also have become the cash cows, the givers of tickets and campaign contribution, and the hosts of countless breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and parties.

What we need is a set of laws that will limit their influence to simply providing advice. Period. Encourage your representatives to enact the lobbying reform efforts now being considered in the General Assembly.

For contact information for our representatives, click here.

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