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Legislature flees after finding some ethics

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Ah, relief. Adjournment sine die arrived in near-record time and came while controversy was still swirling over the outcome of ethics reform, permitting those of us in punditry extra ink to tut-tut over the legacy of the short session of '06.

That the ethics legislation would be met with incredulity was not in doubt from the opening, and throughout the session many lawmakers found it very difficult to grasp the concept that they should just buy their own lunch. Many were outright indignant at the idea of being ruled by a commission outside the legislative branch. And if you're concerned about what your lobbyist friends will do for entertainment, let's just say that the barbecue fund-raiser is far from a fond memory of how things us'ta be.

But there's no denying that this state took a huge step in actual reform. Keep in mind that changes weren't exclusively in the arena of legislative elections and lobbying. The financial interests and doings of the executive and judicial branches and everyone sitting on a state board, commission or authority are going to be under much tighter rein and subject to daylight.

The impact of any new legislation, let alone a completely new regulatory and reporting system, is hard to judge. How do you know if the new rule/law/commission has the teeth it needs or enough funding and personnel to make it work? That's going to be the case with reforms. Everything about the new system--reporting requirements and electioneering and campaign finance rules--is fresh out of the box. Many of the reforms have been tried in other states, but how they'll work in North Carolina is a question mark.

One thing's for sure, though. Since most of the legislation takes effect Oct. 1--just ahead of the election--the new rules and the newly minted State Ethics Commission are going to have a heck of a shakedown cruise. There's potential for the commission, which has yet to be appointed, to find itself knee-deep in partisan and inter-party dogfights before year's end. Good luck to you folks, whoever you are.

Money and predictability

If I had to guess (and I do if I want to keep my pundit's license), I'd say the biggest winners of the '06 short session are the mentally ill. This will be the first year the state's mental health reform will have the kind of money it needs to make that all-important leap to community-based networks supported by modern, better-designed hospitals. The plan has been there for a decade at least, but the money has not. Funds flowing means a huge change for the thousands of families throughout the state who have been waiting for help to arrive.

No. 2 on my list of winners is big telecom--not so much because the enormously complicated revision of the state cable franchise and telecom rules seem to tip the way of the cable companies, but because, in passing something, there is now a much greater level of predictability in the market. A lot of companies were sitting on cash waiting for the rules to shake out. Now they have.

As for other winners and losers, it's tempting to count teachers, state employees, school systems and counties among the victors. They all got a good bit of dough. But when you factor in that they were losers the last several sessions, it's a wash in my book. Yes, a tip of the hat to the Democratic Caucus, which fought for a major education boost from the surplus; but isn't that what most people send you to Raleigh to do in the first place? Going forward, one major test will be how lottery money gets handled. The first year was a little wobbly.

Higher education really did see a gain--pretty good since it was fairly well-fed in the lean years as well. Erskine Bowles all but got rose petals tossed before him when he visited Jones Street, and the UNC system was treated likewise.

And, a defeat in one session--or several--often sets the stage for a win in one ahead. Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) is a case in point. She's introduced the minimum wage hike so many times she's lost count, and for that gets a well-deserved check in the "win" column.

Sour taste

One flurry of bills at the end of the session added to what ought to be called the Latino Racial Profiling Acts of 2006. In addition to tighter requirements for getting a driver's license or a job with state agencies and local schools, local law enforcement agencies are now authorized to make immigration arrests and detain suspected violators of immigration laws. Since this is such a politically charged issue, the combination of elected sheriffs and this new twist could have serious and ugly consequences. It's not hard to imagine a candidate running on the promise to crack down on immigration.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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