Ford

Eyes on capital saints, sinners

Staff WriterJanuary 21, 2007 

Please, by all means, whatever else you have in store for us news and opinion scribes, please do not throw us in the briar patch to be found on Raleigh's Jones Street.

When the General Assembly shows up over there in its splendid early-'60s period piece of a building, following all the activity, from the impossibly noble to the incredibly venal, is an ordeal. We run ourselves ragged. We overload our circuits.

It's the best show in town and we wouldn't miss it.

A state capital newspaper makes its bones, as they say, by keeping a close eye on state government. And we take it as a key part of our editorial page mission to applaud those public servants who deserve it, and to escort those who have let the public down out to the community woodshed for a little session with the hickory.

The business of governing a large and complex state such as North Carolina naturally keeps thousands of folks busy year-round. But the pace in Raleigh accelerates when our senators and representatives arrive, as they will this week. It's a politician's carnival, a policy wonk's paradise, a lobbyist's hog heaven.

Oh, but it's not supposed to be a party for the prosecutors. Did anyone imagine, at this juncture two years ago, that prosecutors were about to start circling the Legislative Building like so many buzzards watching a possum cross the road?

The hurly-burly surrounding passage of the state lottery had them swooping low. So did accounts of past maneuvering to secure positions of power. So did efforts by special interests such as video poker operators and optometrists to sway the course of legislation.

Painfully, right there in the middle of overlapping investigations could be found none other than Democratic state Rep. Jim Black, speaker of the House.

Black has not been charged with any wrongdoing, nor has he acknowledged any. But it was a former aide who helped push the lottery through in the face of staunch opposition. She turned out to have been working as a lobbyist for a big lottery company, although she hadn't bothered to register.

That got her in trouble. A fellow whom Black named to the state Lottery Commission had been doing work for the same company, not that he wanted those beans to be spilled. He's now a convicted felon.

The speaker himself went to bat for optometrists (his own profession) and video poker operators (faithful campaign contributors). Then there was the saga of how he had managed to salvage a hold on power a couple of years before, when a Republican member changed parties to give the Democrats an even split. The flip-flopper, who now awaits sentencing on a conspiracy charge, claimed he was paid $50,000 for the switcheroo.

It says something about what a rough year 2006 was for Republicans that even while carrying all that baggage, Black managed to get himself re-elected. But he couldn't convince his Democratic colleagues to put him up for a record fifth term in the speaker's office. Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill has the inside track to move up from majority leader. Hackney's big challenge will be to oversee and build on ethics reforms that Black himself helped engineer, even if horses were out of the barn.

Reforms so far have focused on the links between lobbyists and legislators -- links that often seem to have been forged from dollar signs. Those are important steps.

But the legislature's ethical climate has another aspect that needs attention. It involves the way power is exercised by those in control. Decisions too often are made in ways that magnify the power of leaders and marginalize those who sit outside the charmed circle. That may even include the public. How else to describe it when bills are ramrodded through in a rush of monkey business and sleight of hand?

One group in the forefront of efforts to bring transparency and accountability to Jones Street, the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, has a meaty list of changes it would like to see.

For instance, it would require membership on committees to be fixed in advance -- no "floaters" sent by leaders to skew the outcome. Committee meetings would have to be announced in advance and open to the public. Committee votes would have to be taken by recorded roll call and would be posted online. Think of it -- votes for which legislators would have to answer!

That's just a smidgen of the coalition's proposed changes. There will be excuses, some self-serving, in defense of the status quo. But we can envision Jim Black, repentant, testifying to the need for further reform if the General Assembly is to retain a claim to the public's trust. Tell it, Brother Jim! This editorial page will savor your every word.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at sford@newsobserver.com

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