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On the take

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It is beyond comprehension that after revelations about a lottery lobbyist on House Speaker Jim Black's staff and another appointed to the state lottery commission, about the Wake County district attorney and a federal grand jury investigating campaign contributions from the video poker industry, and reports about the soaring influence of lobbyists and corporate contributions, the state Senate is balking at passing meaningful ethics reform.

My god, even the state lobbyists' association supports reforms some senators oppose.

There can be only one reason: Some senators like being on the take. They like the efficiency of not having to raise ordinary amounts of money from ordinary people, of having professionals plan their fund-raisers and invite big-money folks, of being able to legally take what otherwise would be considered flat-out bribes. But mostly, they like having a pipeline of big money that makes it a Herculean task for anyone to defeat them.

Democracy North Carolina issued a report Monday that scratches the surface of the problem--not because they didn't dig deep, but because there's so little that candidates report (www.democracy-nc.org/moneyresearch/2006/lobbyistdonations.html). The watchdog group went through more than 200,000 records from January 2003 to April 2006 and found just 11 instances in which candidates acknowledged getting liquor, food or other in-kind contributions from lobbyists, with a value of $5,005.

Investigator Bob Hall says there's no doubt lobbyists are doing more. "But you don't see lobbyists' spending for those events listed, even though state law says such in-kind donations should be disclosed."

Lobbyists also gave $450,000 in direct campaign contributions, the study found, and more than $800,000 in the 2003-2004 election cycle to legislative and Council of State candidates and political parties.

And that barely scratches the surface. Political action committees supplied $7 million--much of it directed by lobbyists--to campaigns in 2004 out of $23 million raised by legislative candidates.

As Kirk Ross reports this week (see Triangles), there's been some progress on the most obvious needs--bills have passed to outlaw use of checks with the payee's line empty (like the ones House Speaker Jim Black was passing around), improve reporting and training of campaign treasurers, and tighten reporting requirements for those 527 organizations (see also Citizen).

But the really tough stuff has been put off by the Senate--a ban on gifts, tighter reporting requirements, an independent ethics review commission and a pilot program for public financing of legislative races.

So call your legislators this week and tell them you want substantive ethics reform that gets them off the take. And remind them what they inevitably say: Gee, those contributions have no effect on the way we vote.

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