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Bill seeks limits on lobbying--and lobbyists

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The transition from public legislator to private lobbyist can happen quickly under current law. In October 2004, 10 days before the end of her term, Rep. Connie Wilson (R-Mecklenburg) resigned her position in the General Assembly. By January 2005, Wilson was a registered lobbyist for N.C. Travel Industry Association, a North Carolina tourism promotion group. Connections between Wilson and tourism were not new. In her last term, the veteran state legislator sponsored a bill to overhaul the public school calendar, pushing back the start of school to late August to extend summer vacation. The tourism industry had fought for the change, arguing that shortened summers were hurting tourism in the state. Wilson led the bill through the House; it became law last August.

This session, legislators are considering whether lobbying laws, or the lack thereof, are serving the public and creating a transparent system. Rep. Joe Hackney (D-Orange) introduced a lobby reform bill in the House on Jan. 26 based on changes recommended by an advisory council headed by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

"The idea is to give more transparency to the legal process and to eliminate things that have the appearance of [being] improper or are improper," says Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake) who is a co-sponsor of the bill. Ross noted that numerous legislators have resigned to become lobbyists, a practice that raises many questions. "Were those people doing the public's business right before they resigned?"

The bill focuses on lobbying practices that occur at the General Assembly and when the legislators are not in session. Among other things, the bill calls for an end to gifts over $25 that are not given to all members of the General Assembly, free sporting event tickets, special loans and donations beyond campaign contributions. The bill would require more stringent reporting requirements for any gift that is given. Currently, lobbyists do not have to report gifts as long as no official bill is discussed when the gift is given.

The lobby reform bill also would require transition time before a legislator could work as a paid lobbyist. Cooling off periods are required in 26 states and the U.S. Congress. North Carolina law currently allows for a seamless transition from a legislator to a lobbyist, as seen in Wilson.

Cathy Wallace, president of N.C. Travel Industry Association, said the organization did not talk to Wilson about employment until after she had resigned from the legislature.

"She is very qualified to do her job," Wallace says. "I am not aware of anything that would be a conflict."

However, supporters of the lobbying bill say this type of change should not be allowed.

"It certainly smells funny and makes it looks like a conflict in state government," says David Mills, executive director of The Common Sense Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy organization in North Carolina. "We should avoid even an appearance of a conflict of interest. There is a real possibility of people in government taking actions that benefit the very business they want to get a job from."

The lobby reform bill would prohibit legislators from working as a lobbyist during the two-year term of their office. Some supporters of the bill hope this will be expanded to create a one- to two-year cooling off period.

These changes aim to increase transparency at the cavernous state legislature. Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan citizen's lobbying organization, says he hopes the bill will increase public confidence in their elected officials.

"Even if wining and dining are only a perception, it still harms those who serve the public," Phillips says.

There have been several attempts in the past 10 to 15 years to pass a comprehensive lobby reform bill. However, there have been no large-scale reforms made in the past 15 years. For this reason, a new coalition of organizations and individuals committed to lobby reform has been formed to help push for legislation in a more meaningful way. Both Common Cause North Carolina and The Common Sense Foundation are part of the coalition.

"There are some powerful interests arrayed against [the bill]," Mills says. "The challenge is to keep big money's teeth out of the bill."

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