N.C. House lobbying changes focus to more disclosure

By: - July 13, 2005 5:01 am

Rocky Mount Telegram

Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Lobbyists at the General Assembly would have to report when they spend more than $10 trying to influence state lawmakers and file the disclosures several times a year in a bill introduced in the House on Tuesday.

The measure contrasts with a Senate lobbying proposal approved in April that capped spending on legislators at $100 but included exceptions for some expenses of trade associations and nonprofits.

"This is a comprehensive reporting bill. This is a full disclosure bill," Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, the sponsor of the House legislation, told the House judiciary panel where the bill was introduced.

Efforts to rework the rules began after a national survey gave North Carolina a failing grade for disclosure requirements. A special commission recommended changes last year.

Lawmakers in both chambers have agreed to eliminate a "goodwill" loophole that allows lobbyists to treat legislators to unlimited meals and entertainment — as long as no specific legislation is discussed.

The exemption allows lobbyists to buy meals and tickets to athletic events for legislators without having to report the expense.

Hackney said he and other supporters felt that more disclosure — rather than a spending cap or ban — was best to eliminate the impression that money drives successful legislation.

"Full disclosure accomplishes the purpose of assuring the public has confidence in the integrity of the process," he said.

Registered legislative lobbyists would have to file monthly reports with the Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates lobbying, while the General Assembly is in session. The filings would be quarterly in between sessions. Reports are now required twice a year.

Organizations who retain lobbyists also would have to file reports monthly or quarterly. False or incomplete reports would be punishable by $5,000 per violation.

Monthly disclosures seem unreasonable, according to the president of the North Carolina Professional Lobbyists Association, which favors a complete ban on expenditures over any reporting. In the absence of a ban, the association supports a requirement for lawmakers to file reports as well.

"There’s no question about how people are influenced if there’s a complete ban," said Christie Barbee, who represents the Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association.

Most lobbyists don’t wine and dine legislators to attempt to persuade them on bills, she said.

"The truth is most lobbyists do their work in this building, meeting with legislators," she said.

The bill would apply new disclosure rules to groups who lobby executive branch agencies and lobbyists for state agencies at the Legislative Building.

The bill also would prohibit former lawmakers from lobbying the Legislature or executive branch until one year after the person’s two-year term would have expired. The Senate version narrowed the maximum length of the so-called "cooling-off period" by a year.

The judiciary committee didn’t vote on the bill and had little debate. Hackney said he still hoped to get a reform bill passed before the end of this year’s session.

Bob Hall with Democracy North Carolina, one of 40 groups in a coalition seeking rules changes, said Tuesday’s bill would provide greater transparency.

"It gives us more information faster," he said.

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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