Friday’s Follies

By: - March 18, 2005 2:07 pm

It seems like this legislative session is providing more puzzling debates than usual. Lobbying reform is an example. An unusual coalition of public policy and advocacy groups has formed to try to toughen the state’s amazingly weak laws that essentially let lobbyists do anything they want without reporting anything.

The coalition held a press conference this week to encourage lawmakers to at least pass legislation to require that lobbyists report all the money they spend on entertaining legislators, the meals, the basketball tickets, golf outings, etc.

Don Beason is the top-ranked lobbyist in the General Assembly and represents a long list of business interests. Reacting to the call for lobbying reform, Beason told the Winston-Salem Journal “In my 30 years here, I have never seen buying dinner for anybody affect what the legislator does.” Ok, so then banning the dinners or at least reporting them shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Beason’s comments do raise an interesting question. If buying a legislator dinner doesn’t affect what a legislator does, why do lobbyists continue to buy them dinner?

Must just be a neighborly thing to do for folks. Probably has nothing to do with the fact that the dinner gives a lobbyist the chance to spend a couple of hours with someone whose vote the lobbyist needs. That’s definitely not it.

Rep. Alma Adams is trying once again to help low-wage workers in North Carolina. Adams has introduced legislation that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.15 in two years. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages that the federal standard. Several of those states ranked ahead of North Carolina in the recent survey of business recruitment published by Site Selection Magazine.

Adams courageously introduces this bill every year and it rarely gets even a serious hearing. Certain business lobbyists make sure of that. North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry always opposes raising the wage even though at its current level, a single person working 40 hours a week earns just slightly more than the federal poverty level, well below it if the person has a child.

Even harder to understand is why NCCBI and other groups who so strenuously oppose the minimum wage hike also lobby so hard against expanding programs that serve the poorly paid workers. The state budget shortfall threatens Medicaid, child care programs, access to mental health treatment, yet NCCBI wants to lower the corporate tax rate and let a 2001 tax increase on the state’s richest taxpayers expire.

In case you are keeping score, that is no to raising the minimum wage so workers are more able to afford their own insurance and day care, and no to expanding or even maintaining state programs that provide those services that the workers can’t currently afford. That certainly makes sense don’t you think? People just need to choose not to be poor.

The fallout continues from the news that legislative leaders controlled $20 million of money set aside in last year’s budget. The money went to fund local projects suggested by individual lawmakers. Both Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and House Speaker Jim Black say that this year’s budget will not include any money for a special fund and that all local projects funded will be listed in the final budget.

That seems the least they can do. But it is still not clear Speaker Black understands the basis for much of the criticism of the discretionary money. It is not just that the money was allocated in secret, it is that $20 million was taken off the table as lawmakers were determining how many people who need human services would get them.

Black said again that there wouldn’t be any discretionary money this year because there is a budget shortfall. There was a budget shortfall last year too. That’s why so little progress was made on addressing the human services crisis in the state.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066