Reform bills pushed to next year

Legislators say not enough time remains to act on Easley- related ethics matters.

Staff WriterAugust 7, 2009 

— A slate of government reform bills that gained attention amid controversies surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley will not be taken up as lawmakers push to end this year's work. That's according to a leading senator whose committee is handling the bills.

Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, and other legislators said there is support to make changes. But they said there is not enough time to finish them before legislators adjourn for this year.

"We'll do them next year," Nesbitt said. "There is no attempt to kill them by omission."

The bills, all of which passed the House and sit in a committee led by Nesbitt, would have brought more accountability and transparency in ethics and lobbying in state government, according to reform advocates who pushed the measures.

Some of the issues involving Easley, a Democrat who left office in January, have shown weaknesses in existing laws, reform advocates said, and they were hoping for more immediate change.

Bob Phillips, head of the advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina, said groups lobbying to get reforms passed have been citing the Easley matters in talks with lawmakers.

"And we feel pretty confident that these will pass -- the General Assembly understands there is still a need for some ethics changes," Phillips said. The bills are alive for the legislative session that is to begin in the spring, officials said.

The bills would:

Require appointees to 14 of the state's major boards and commission to disclose their campaign fundraising activities.

Strengthen public records laws by specifying the payment of attorney's fees to successful plaintiffs in a records dispute.

Prohibit campaign contributions from vendors with state contracts of more than $25,000.

Keep high-level executive branch employees from registering as a lobbyist for six months after leaving their position.

Separately, the legislature has already passed an ethics law for local government officials across the state that requires all of them to have a code of ethics and be trained on ethics.

Phillips, who worked to pass other ethics changes in recent years, said one goal is to require more disclosures about people who aid elected officials.

He pointed out that many of the Easley matters involved appointees such as McQueen Campbell, who was appointed by Easley to be a trustee at N.C. State University. Campbell also was flying with the governor and helping him in a real estate deal.

State and federal investigators are conducting ongoing probes of the Easley campaign, a job Easley's wife received at NCSU and other activities.

Nesbitt said the bills were not taken up in a couple of instances because the chief sponsors from the House, Reps. Deborah Ross of Raleigh and Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, are out of town. Ross and Glazier have said long-scheduled commitments caused them to leave town.

State Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat and longtime ally of Easley, had previously signaled his support for the bills. Rand, the majority leader in the Senate, reiterated in an interview this week that he backs the reforms and expects them to pass.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat who was handling one of the bills, said there is broad support. But he said lawmakers are focused on adjournment.

"The clock has just run out," he said.

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