Lawmakers, lobbyists are getting the message

Published 5:06 pm Tuesday, March 27, 2007

By Staff
Would a lawmaker sell his vote for a free dinner?
We hope not. But the level at which lobbyists go to influence those who make our laws has raised enough eyebrows that even the hint of wrongdoing has caused some companies to back off a bit. That can only be viewed as a positive thing.
Rep. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said he has noticed a difference in lobbying activities in the early weeks of the 2007 legislative session.
Beach parties, fancy dinners and Carolina Hurricanes tickets are becoming distant memories of what lobbying was like in North Carolina before state lawmakers changed the rules.
Lobbyists have a place. Even elected officials employ them to foster what they view as the public good. The City of Washington supports the U.S. Highway 17 Association, which is tasked with getting lawmakers to support the four-laning of the highway. Few in eastern North Carolina would argue that the roads project is valuable to eastern North Carolina, but outside of that, others would make the case that the association is a special-interest group.
Nobody has leveled charges against the U.S. 17 group, but that hasn’t been the case with other lobbying efforts.
Embarq, a telecom company that used to be part of Sprint, hosted a reception with a pianist and motivational speaker this year. In years past, telecom giant Sprint entertained lawmakers with a beach band, seafood and drinks, according to the Raleigh newspaper.
The North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers used to host small gatherings for lawmakers at an expensive restaurant. Now they hold a drop-in social at the company office.
Also gone from last year are the Carolina Hurricanes tickets offered to lawmakers and access to a suite at the RBC Center from the N.C. Association of Electric Cooperatives.
Records for February and a week in January show that only a few of the more than 700 registered lobbyists in the state had reported spending on legislators.
That included a $6,509 session at the Clarion Hotel in downtown Raleigh hosted by AARP North Carolina, a $483 lunch bill for top government officials paid for by software company SAS Institute, and $14,000 spent by the state AFL-CIO on meetings across North Carolina attended by 19 legislators.
A nearly $30,000 reception at the North Carolina History Museum was hosted by the N.C. Association of Electric Cooperatives. The annual event hasn’t been reported in the past, said Jay Rouse, a lobbyist for the association.
The new lobbying rules don’t require a list of participants if more than 15 people attend an event. In 2004 however, The Center For Public Integrity said the more than 600 registered lobbyists in North Carolina spent $8.8 million on their efforts. That goes far beyond a typical lunch.
Phillips, of Common Cause, said members of the public ultimately benefit from the new rules.
We will all benefit if that is the case.