Tightening the reins on campaign finance | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Tightening the reins on campaign finance 

Whether a politician has accepted large campaign cash from a donor with unseemly motives or a top government officer has accepted gifts to throw a government contract the way of a friend, political watchdogs are hopeful that backroom bargaining becomes more transparent through several proposed laws.

State legislators are expected to tackle a package of changes to campaign finance regulations and ethical standards for state employees and board appointees during this summer's short session, which begins today. Many reforms come in bills that already were introduced to state lawmakers last year. "The most important thing is that they get to the heart of the problem: the money chase and politicians having to spend so much time kowtowing to special interests that give them money," said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina.

Here's a roundup of what folks like Hall and other pro-reform groups will be watching.

Requiring campaign finance disclosures by appointees (HB944). The bill, which passed the House last summer and has been referred to the Senate, requires appointees to public executive and advisory boards, including the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, the UNC Board of Governors and the state boards of education, elections and transportation, to file reports immediately after their appointments that detail their campaign contributions and fundraising to political candidates and action committees.

Expanding publicly financed elections to include more municipalities (HB120). With a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to push political campaigns and causes, many say the need for stricter campaign finance rules couldn't be more timely.

Public municipal campaigns would allow candidates to use public tax dollars to run for office. First, they must gather small contributions to show they have enough support, then they qualify for a grant from the town or city.

Proponents of the program say it helps create financial equity among candidates and removes the influence of big private money from campaigns. Opponents say it's a misuse of tax dollars. Currently, Chapel Hill is the only municipality with publicly funded campaigns, but elected officials in Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Greenville, Wilmington and Winston-Salem have recently passed resolutions supporting the bill, which passed the House last year and has been referred to the Senate.

Expanding publicly financed state elections to include Treasurer (SB20). Currently, a state pilot program allows candidates for State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Commissioner of Insurance to qualify for public campaign financing. This bill could expand the pilot program to include candidates running for the office of state Treasurer. Advocates for publicly funded elections, such as Josh Glasser of the nonpartisan group Common Cause NC, says he would like to see the pilot program expanded further to include four additional offices in the Council of State: Commissioner of Agriculture, Attorney General, Secretary of State and Commissioner of Labor.

"Since they each have a special niche, people who are being elected to regulate and inspect special interests are forced to get money from those special interests," Glasser said.

Prohibiting active state contractors from making campaign contributions (HB961). Supporters of this bill say it would limit the influence state contractors have on state employees, particularly the decision makers. The bill has passed the House, and if it makes it through the Senate it would prohibit contractors from contributing to the person who holds the office overseeing that contract.

Creating a waiting period before state execs can register as lobbyists (HB1136).This bill, which passed the House last year 112-0, would require certain members of the state's executive branch (which includes elected and appointed officials) to wait at least six months after leaving a state office before they're allowed to register as a lobbyist. A similar provision is already in place for members of the Legislature. Without some sort of cooling-off period, "It creates the appearance of them taking advantage of relationships, and even perhaps some regulations that they put in place as an executive, to help a private client get an advantage," Hall said.

  • Political watchdogs are hopeful that backroom bargaining becomes more transparent through several proposed laws.

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