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No secret

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The dirty little secret about how things really go down among the lobbyists and legislators in Raleigh isn't little, it isn't secret and unless the law is changed, it isn't even considered dirty.

It's no secret that those who walk the halls of the legislature representing corporations and interest groups by day are picking up the check at night. The dinners and receptions are so thick that, over the years, a kind of social calendar has evolved to prevent double-booking gatherings and to help your elected officials hop from event to event.

And the collective wine and dine operation is by no means little. There are roughly 750 registered lobbyists, pulling in close to $2 million a year to try to influence legislation.

Under current rules--or, more accurately, the lack of rules--none of those lobbyists have to tell us how much they spent on senators and representatives at some of the capital's finer restaurants. Nor do they have to tell us what they spent or who they took down to Pinehurst for a little golf or out to Asheville for a couple of nights in the mountains. Under these rules, more than 90 percent of the lobbyists in this state fail to report any expenditures.

But if you're looking for outrage about this system, don't expect to find much on Jones Street. If you're on the receiving end of a fine steak and a nice bottle of wine at Sullivan's, why should you be?

The legislature, people will be quick to tell you, is a chummy place and this is just business among chums. To suggest that there is anything wrong with the rules--like, say, requiring accountability--is to imply that something immoral might be happening. Dinner, even if the tab is in the thousands, is not bribery, they'll say. With few exceptions, legislators have hypnotized themselves into believing that buying access isn't already a scandal.

You don't have to look far to see where this attitude can lead us. Earlier this month several legislators in Tennessee--a state that has tougher rules than here--got caught up in an influence-buying FBI sting. Just to our south, in Georgia and South Carolina, it took scandals and a few jail sentences to get the legislatures to clean up their acts.

To think that here in the 10th largest state, where millions in state contracts, tax breaks and incentives ride on one or two influential voices being raised, a major scandal isn't just around the corner is to deny the realities of money's corrosive influence on those sent to Raleigh to do the people's business.

We need reform. And we need it now.

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