SCOTT MOONEYHAM: When Legislators Run Into Conflict
When does an act by a legislator cross the line into a conflict of interest?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but it’s one that comes up often at the General Assembly, though sometimes in whispered conversations.
The conversation wasn’t so hushed recently when accusations of a potential conflict spilled onto the House floor during debate on a bill that would set age restrictions for all-terrain vehicle riders.
When Rep. Cary Allred, an Alamance County Republican, questioned aspects of the legislation, some of his Democratic colleagues let him know that they didn’t consider the comments appropriate.
The reason: Allred and his family own a Burlington motorcycle dealership whose sales include ATVs.
The accusations set off an Allred tirade. He made several references to unnamed House members while noting that legislator-college professors vote for state employee pay raises and lawmakers earn income from state-supported nonprofit groups.
That day, Allred voted against the bill. When a House-Senate compromise version of the same bill came back before the chamber, he decided to excuse himself from voting. Meanwhile, Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican whose family owns a John Deere dealership that sells ATVs, voted both times. (He voted in favor of the bill, but only after the House had substantially weakened Senate provisions.)
It’s not unusual for legislators to excuse themselves from voting. But it’s just as likely that one will vote on an issue despite having a business relationship that could call his or her vote into question.
After all, many legislators are wealthy. They have interests in banks, real estate development and other industries that often seek regulatory changes before the General Assembly.
North Carolina law doesn’t require lawmakers to avoid a vote or debate on an issue when they have a financial interest that could be affected by the outcome. Rather, it only encourages legislators to determine whether their “judgment will be substantially influenced by the interest.”
House and Senate rules also discourage voting and debating on matters in which legislators have a financial or personal stake.
When compared to other states, North Carolina’s law is pretty weak. Many states specifically require legislators not to vote when they judge themselves to have a conflict and to state the reasons when excusing themselves. Colorado and Pennsylvania put the prohibitions into their respective state constitutions.
But laws in other states, including Tennessee, New Hampshire and West Virginia, are completely silent on the issue.
Obviously, potential conflicts can be fairly complex and deemed to be in the eye of the beholder. Some states define conflicts as arising only when legislation could benefit legislators individually (a new road traversing their property) rather than as a class (ATV dealership owners). Lawmakers also have a duty to weigh potential conflicts against the effects of disenfranchising their constituents when they don’t vote.
Still, the Allred-sparked debate and a few other less publicized conflicts in recent years provide ample evidence that it’s time to re-examine North Carolina’s law.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association.
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