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Reform school 

In the back of the room gathered lobbyists of every stripe, some quite literally so: It's seersucker season in the capital city. They were there to hear the outline of new changes to House Bill 1849--lobbying reform 2006--and take their turn in grinding out reform this session.

"Come to see what a terrible person you are?" one greeted another. "When are they going to talk about member reform?" another muttered just before things got down to business.

Since a slate of 10 reform bills was introduced in May, on the second day of the session, the judiciary committee has worked through the objections, confusion and, in some cases, outrage over details like how legislators can spend their campaign cash and what constitutes a lobbyist-funded meal. It's a package that Chairman Joe Hackney (D-Orange) says would result in the "biggest change around here in 200 years."

While there have been a few dust-ups over limits and rule changes, seven of the 10 bills have passed the House by doublewide margins. This is not the year to get in the way of reform, and members of the General Assembly are, for the most part, lining up to take their medicine--although, as Hackney notes, "some more happily than others." He is confident that the momentum is there to pass most, if not all, of the package. "We are more than halfway there," Hackney says. When the Senate takes up the bills this week, he says, "I think they'll find that we've done most of the heavy lifting."

Another of those doing the lifting is Wake Democrat Deborah Ross, a cosponsor of much of the reform package and House floor leader for three of the bills. She said she expects the pace to pick up.

"Ethics reform will happen," Ross says. "It's not going to have everything everybody wants, but we are plunging forward."

The momentum is there, Ross says, but don't pin it all on Speaker Jim Black.

"Every change is not related to the speaker," Ross says. "There have been other people in trouble over the years." But the momentum wouldn't have been this strong, she says, without the spotlight the speaker's troubles have thrown on matters.

Both Hackney and Ross say they are already seeing changes: a reduction in the usual wining and dining and an increase in members' reflection on whether something fits with the new regime.

"The bottom line is that it's going to result in a culture change," Ross says. "You don't change a culture overnight. But when we come back in January, there'll be a different system in place."

Last week, for instance, the House approved new rules that tighten limits on spending campaign money.

North Carolina is one of only a handful of states that never got around to spelling out what's an acceptable expenditure. Right now, you can take your leftover campaign war chest and head for Vegas. In addition to laying out new ground rules for expenses, the bill also requires campaign finance reports to be a little more specific in recordkeeping. Just putting down "$500 to Visa" would no longer fly. In the current climate, one might think--wrongly, of course--that such a change would sail through. But ýuring floor debate, supporters had to fend off an amendment to start the rules next year and not Oct. 1, as the bill was written. But the amendment failed 45-68, with the majority convinced that the public believes it's high time for reformÑand high time means this election, too.

Ross also fielded a half-dozen hypotheticals on just what constitutes a legitimate expense under the new law, including Rep. Cary Allred's oddly germane inquiry that should running for office drive him mad, would he be able to deduct his psychiatric expenses? Ross supposed he could, but reminded him he would have to put it down on his expense report.

Two other components still waiting on approval--new lobbying rules and a pilot program in public financing-- are "crucial pieces" of reform, says Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. While the laws promise to significantly tighten up the existing system, he says, creating a public financing option--"a real alternative"--opens up a completely different approach to conducting campaigns.

Until there's a way of funding campaigns with "clean money," Hall says, there will always be a temptation for some folks to figure out ways around the rules. And that's enough to drive anyone crazy.

Fifth time's a charm

After being removed from the calendar and rescheduled five times, Sen. Julia Boseman (D-New Hanover) finally got a chance to see the Senate take up her bill to repeal the kindergarten eye-exam requirement. The requirement, put into the budget by the House last year, resulted in a lawsuit by dozens of school systems saying it placed an undue burden on families.

The repeal was put into the budget this year by the Senate, but pulled out when the House passed its version of the budget. Though the Senate voted last week 47-0 to get rid of the program, passage of a repeal by the House, which is led by an optometrist and rather vocal proponent of the program (House Speaker Jim Black, for the uninitiated), is far less certain.

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