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Major ethics reforms still hanging 

The General Assembly, embarrassed by a string of unseemly revelations, is slow to pass reforms. But they may stay in session until they do.

A couple of weeks ago, as the budget gelled, Sen. Hugh Webster posed an inquiry to Senate President Beverly Perdue during a lull in the action.

"Are we going to get out of here before the tomatoes get ripe?" asked Webster, an Alamance Republican. Perdue said she hoped so, but noted that either way the senator grows some pretty fine tomatoes.

On Tuesday, Webster answered his own question, setting out pans of his sliced crop along with bread and jars of Duke's mayonnaise for any and all. After tall talk of getting out of town in early July, ethics and lobby reform--critical measures to this year's session--have yet to be locked down. The tomatoes ripened first.

Although there's been continued progress in reform via final passage of legislation that mandates campaign treasurer training, outlaws incomplete checks and cuts the allowable cash contribution in half from $100 to $50, the elephants in the room--lobby reform and ethics bills--may take another week to work out.

"These are the bigger, more complicated bills," says Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a watchdog group specializing in campaign finance.

The ethics bills, passed by the House earlier this month and now undergoing review in the Senate, offer significant changes in reporting requirements for members of all three branches of government. They're aimed at preventing undue influence and exposing conflicts of interest, but the bills have stalled at times over how much power and purview to give an independent ethics board. Legislators have balked over whether the board should have the ability to investigate complaints and how much enforcement power it should have, but Hall says those opposed to the idea are beginning to modify their positions. "We're starting to make some headway there," he says.

On lobby reform legislation, Louisa Warren, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobby Reform, says there is concern that the legislation is being reshaped in a way that may even weaken rules put in place last year. Warren says one concern was that a proposed one-year cooling off period before former legislators can start lobbying has been cut to six months--far shorter than most Southern states. Another, she says, is that the rules on gifts and what constitutes an official meeting or an educational conference are too vague. "You can easily imaging a meeting being something that happens at Sullivan's Steakhouse or on the golf course."

Warren says that with the public, most legislators and even lobbyists calling for changes, it's important to get this round of reforms right because the stars might not line up like this again for a while. Lawmakers got a reminder of that this week in the form of a letter from former Govs. Jim Hunt and Jim Holshouser, former UNC President Bill Friday, former House Speaker Dan Blue, GOP chair Bill Cobey, former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, and Capitol Broadcasting owner Jim Goodmon urging they follow through on reforms.

Hall says that though legislators will agree the changes are necessary, it has been an uncomfortable and personal process for many of them.

"This is not about global warming or building roads," he says. "This is their business. They will admit that there is a problem, but I think they'd like to send a message that the problem's not as bad as the public thinks--that everybody's not a crook here."

Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake) says House negotiators will take a good look at the Senate's work once the ethics and lobby reforms move back to the House.

She agrees with Hall that opposition to an independent oversight commission can be soothed and says the House is committed to stopping the kind of schmoozing that draws the public ire.

"We're committed to eliminating that kind of one-on-one wining and dining," she says.

And while there is a push to leave town, as the session started back in on Monday it was clear that adjournment is at least another week away.

Ross says while there is plenty keeping the legislature around--from technical corrections to appointments to key environmental efforts like a landfill moratorium--the biggest requirement for an exit are the remaining reform and ethics bills.

"I wouldn't want to leave here and have that still on the table."

What's done ...

Six of 10 major pieces of legislation recommended by a special House committee on ethics had passed by Tuesday; four remained.

  • New rules that ban legislators from using campaign money for personal use and tightens reporting requirements on expenditures. After Oct. 1, legislators will no longer be able to convert campaign contributions to personal use after an election. (North Carolina was one of the last states to still allow the practice.)

  • Improved treasurer training and tighter reporting requirements.

  • A ban on so-called blank checks, which would outlaw the practice that landed House Speaker Jim Black in hot water when he filled in the name of a political ally on thousands of dollars in checks from optometrists.

  • Tighter reporting requirements on so-called 527 organizations--independent groups that make significant ad buys or contributions to campaigns.

    ... and undone

  • Ethics reform for all three branches that would ban gifts, tighten reporting requirements and set up an independent ethics review commission to record and investigate complaints.

  • Lobbying reforms that would ban gifts and campaign fund-raising, tighten reporting requirements and provide a cooling off period before former legislators and state officials can lobby.

  • A public financing pilot that would set up a test of public funding for legislative races similar to the public funding system for state judges.

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