Giving the lobbyists a break

By: - July 21, 2005 5:16 am

Raleigh News & Observer

By JIM JENKINS, Staff Writer

On my first journalistic foray into the North Carolina Legislative Building 20 some-odd years (and some downright peculiar ones, too) ago, a rather cynical and grizzled reporter was showing me the ropes. Said he: "How do ya tell the difference between lobbyists and members? The lobbyists are the ones who never get lost in the building and look like they know what they’re doing."

A rather harsh assessment, I thought, of our honorables. Alas, along with watching the diligent folks who represented the people back home, this fellow had long observed those who partook of too many goodies, large and small, who picked the pockets of special-interest lobbyists and the people for whom they worked for campaign contributions even if the likeliest opponent in their re-election bids was a ham sandwich. This veteran reporter was like a fellow leathered by one burn after another who now cursed the sunshine.

Do North Carolina’s elected lawmakers really want us all to do that, figuratively speaking, when it comes to our views of the services they’re alleged to perform on Raleigh’s Jones Street? They — and let’s add a cautionary note that it’s not all — act sometimes like they don’t care, with the current debate over lobbying reform a good example of their disengagement from those they are supposed to represent. A proposal in the state House and one in the state Senate offer some measure of reform in the reporting of gifts and the like from lobbyists to lawmakers (they’d be more public), and in an option in one of the plans for lawmakers to opt out of any gifts from lobbyists.

The Senate plan would limit gifts to the point where some senators who were discussing the plan in committee were asking if they’d actually have to pay for their own transportation and meals, etc., if they accepted invitations to attend an event. (A few appeared chagrined at the notion.)

Well, here’s a fresh take on things: To call this lobbying reform is a misnomer. Lobbyists are hired guns for special interest groups. Some who work for industries that can afford it channel campaign money from their contacts to legislators (perfectly legal), particularly leaders who are big money-raisers like House Speaker Jim Black (a major recipient of contributions from those associated with the video poker industry, for example, which he has protected) and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. Both of those fellows collect contributions and in turn contribute to legislative candidates who support keeping them in power.

And sure, lobbyists host parties where the wine and the dine are top-shelf. And…OK, many times the interests of big business are protected against an assault on behalf of consumers.

But here’s the thing: Lobbyists aren’t the problem. Legislators who have their hands out are the problem, which is why, whenever lobbying reform comes up, it’s first greeted as if lawmakers were $2 mules trying to be pulled over a deep ditch. Then, reform is whittled at and worried over as if the formula for change really needed a consultation with Dr. Albert Einstein — so, uh, we reckon we’ll just have to forget it until we can get him over…oh, really? … Well, darn the luck!

Lobbyists would lead the cheering if tomorrow, all campaign contributions from lobbyists themselves and from those professionally connected to them were banned. They’d offer another toast if all gifts were prohibited. They’d have to hand their car keys to somebody by the time they got to toasting if the legislature said, "No more" to the endless buffets and cocktail parties and trips.

They wouldn’t do any celebrating publicly, of course. When they’re solicited by lawmakers, or by groups of lawmakers who want them to sponsor a party caucus or something, they have to smile and say they’re just plumb tickled to participate in this great democracy of ours.

North Carolina has weak lobbying regulation, and too many legislators don’t want to do anything about it, as if the contributions from those in special interest groups or the parties or the trips are some kind of entitlement that comes, and ought to come, with being a member of the General Assembly. This is not an attitude shared by the folks back home who put them in the lawmaking business, and thankfully, it’s also not the attitude of the stand-up folks in the House and Senate who want to pull those mules over the ditch.

We ought to have a ban on all gifts, all contributions, all parties — everything. Lobbyists do contribute something to the process, it’s true, and it’s not always bad for them to educate legislators on issues. But it’s time to put an end to the regal treatment that some lawmakers have come to expect. They’re not entitled. They’re indebted — to the people.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 829-4513 or at [email protected]

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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