Not so long ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories about lobbyists piling undated checks, made out to legislators’ campaigns, on their desks as they awaited the end of North Carolina’s legislative session.
For decades, lobbyists and their employers were prohibited by state law from contributing to legislators’ political campaigns while the legislature met. The ban was intended to prevent a contribution just as a legislator considered a bill that would directly affect the contributor.
In 2006, lawmakers banned lobbyists from contributing any time. The in-session ban, though, still applies to the companies, trade associations and others — in legislative parlance they are called lobbying principals — who employ lobbyists.
Plans by the new legislative leadership to put together a state budget outside of the legislative session, and then vote on it within a few days of convening next year, have some people questioning whether the in-session contribution ban will be circumvented.
“While I truly think that 99.99 percent of the legislators are absolutely honest and they’re not going to be swayed by people giving them money, it leaves the citizens of North Carolina uncomfortable,” Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, recently told the News & Observer of Raleigh.
With all due respect to Pinsky, let me point out the obvious: Those with policy interests before the North Carolina General Assembly heap thousands upon thousands of dollars on legislators and legislative candidates to not have any sway.
That doesn’t mean that those company executives or trade association members expect or demand a specific outcome on a specific bill because they donate to a legislator’s campaign. That would be illegal.
They do expect some general influence.
Whether the checks are piled in a neat stack awaiting some unknown end date or they go out while legislators are crafting a budget, the expectation is the same.
Of course, it might look bad for the president of Acme Nail Co. to hand over a check to a legislator on the same date that legislator considers a budget provision requiring all state structures to be built with nails that meet the same standards as the Acme nail.
Public perception can be as important as reality. So the criticism of a changing legislative process that could enable such a scenario isn't surprising.
The more meaningful criticism may come from former House Speaker and current Minority Leader Joe Hackney.
Hackney, a Democrat, called the Republican legislative leaders’ budget plans part of a move away from a part-time, citizens legislature. The same trend includes four separate reconvened legislative sessions following the end of the regular session in late June, the latest coming this week.
Republican leaders are responding to reality. North Carolina is a complex state, and addressing public policy here has become a full-time endeavor.
What’s problematic is how legislative leaders are getting there, keeping up this façade of a part-time legislature.
Doing so, the opportunities for secrecy, mischief and games of political gotcha only increase.