Don’t tinker with ethics reform

Published 5:41 am Monday, January 29, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The News and Observer.)
With apologies to William Shakespeare, we thinks they doth protest too much. Legislators, that is, who say they’re worried about people being able to understand ethics reforms adopted by the last General Assembly. As lawmakers return to Raleigh for the 2007 ‘‘long session,’’ there’s some stirring and discontent about reforms intended to curb the influence of lobbyists and the special interest groups they represent. The changes, say some members, might have to be revised a bit. Nope. Beware the lawmaker who wants to revise reform. That might well turn out to be code for ‘‘weaken’’ reform.
The truth is, legislators weren’t happy about making these changes. There are too many in the capital who have long regarded the parties and the trips and the funds raised by lobbyists as their right, as deference to which they’re entitled. That is preposterous, of course. Isn’t this all supposed to be about public service?
What’s more, the simplest kind of reform is self-imposed. There is nothing to keep our elected representatives in the state House and Senate from simply turning down any lobbyist contributions for their political action committees (still allowed under ‘‘reform’’) or trips characterized as educational by whatever group is picking up the tab (also allowed). Individual legislators can make it clear they’re not accepting anything connected to special interest groups — period, end of story.
That some are furrowing their brows over understanding the new rules is troubling. They haven’t even tried to play by these rules, and already there’s talk of changing them. The sensible view is that of Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina and a leading reform advocate. Here’s what Phillips said: ‘‘I’m not surprised that people are concerned about it because of the changes that it is bringing. But as (new House Speaker) Joe Hackney said to his colleagues — when there are questions, err on the side of being cautious and don’t accept that gift. That’s not too much to ask.’’
Exactly. And those legislators who have witnessed the fallout from former Speaker Jim Black’s campaign and legislative activities (still part of investigations) and who hesitate to offer full-throated support for reform are either way out of touch with the folks back home or have lost sight of why they supposedly wanted to come to Raleigh in the first place.
The goal of these ethics reforms is very simple: Special interest groups, be they banks or insurance companies or health care companies or trade associations for professionals, should not have preferential access to the people who make our laws. Those people should be responsible to, and should seek the opinions of, those who voted them into office, not just those who want their votes for their own purposes.
There’s nothing complicated about that, ladies and gentlemen of this new General Assembly. At the end of every day of this gathering of the legislature, you should ask yourselves: Did I serve the folks back home and the interests of the state today? Did I follow my conscience, unswayed by those who wanted my vote for their reasons? Did I reject campaign contributions and special favors that, unknowingly or otherwise, might have influenced my vote unduly?
If you are coming up with all yeses, then congratulations. You understand what you’re doing here.