Ethics bills hashed out in private

Lawmakers wrestle with bills

Staff writerJuly 10, 2010 

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An ethics and good government bill was headed to a vote early today as lawmakers argued over how much public agencies should report about disciplinary actions against employees.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said the disclosure issue was the final stumbling block in the roughly 30-page-bill, which includes measures such as upping the penalty for exceeding campaign contribution limits and making it easier for those who win public records lawsuits to collect legal fees from government.

After hours of negotiating late Friday and early today, the House and Senate were still hashing out the state employee issue.

Berger said House negotiators' latest proposal would allow agencies to report the reasons for dismissing an employee, but only after a 15-day notice to the employee and an undefined "reasonable" period of time after. Berger, a Rockingham County Republican who has been the strongest advocate for providing more transparency in personnel matters, said the Senate wanted disclosure for suspensions and demotions as well. That, he said, was prolonging the negotiation.

Both chambers, he said, have agreed that salary and employment histories should be public.

He said House and Senate negotiators had agreed about other long-standing areas of dispute over measures to curtail the influence of money in politics.

Much of the negotiation went on behind closed doors.

Even Gov. Bev Perdue, who was attempting to monitor the negotiations from her home in New Bern, was on the outside looking in. Press Secretary Chrissy Pearson said the governor's lobbying team has been shut out of meetings between House and Senate leaders on the package, and so it has been "virtually impossible" for the governor to have input in the discussions.

Good government advocates did not take the privacy as an indicator that key points in the legislation would be decided in their favor.

"I find it completely ironic," said Jane Pinsky, executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. "I understand they need time to talk, but to do it at the last minute and behind closed doors doesn't speak well for ethics and good government."

Lawmakers from both parties have talked about the need for ethics law changes after repeated scandals in state government.

The House and Senate have passed different packages of reforms that include upping the penalty for violating campaign contribution limits, requiring more political appointees to disclose campaign fundraising and making public the salary histories of state and local employees. But neither bill moved forward for a vote during the past two days. That gave lawmakers until early today, their planned adjournment, to finish the task.

The bill had not been voted on by 12:30 a.m. (Visit newsobserver.com for the latest developments.)

Laws can be broken

Senate leader Marc Basnight said the final package would have heft, but it wouldn't have prevented some of the recent corruption cases.

"The misfortunes of the past, they would not have changed with this set of laws," said Basnight, a Manteo Democrat. "People were found to break the laws that we had. These just give great clarity and create a transparency that should have occurred." Legislative leaders had pledged to move a substantial reform package before the session closed, but they were hung up on at least three reform measures, two of which address concerns about "pay to play" practices in state government that arose in Gov. Mike Easley's administration.

The first is a provision in the House bill that would prohibit most contractors doing business with state government from making campaign contributions of more than $1,000 annually to the office holder that awards the business. Senate leaders have resisted the provision.

A second is how far political appointees should go in disclosing campaign fundraising for the officials who appoint them. The House bill requires disclosure of each contribution raised; the Senate requires appointees to confirm they had been fundraising.

Another item of contention is how far to go in making more personnel information public. The Senate bill makes public salary and employment histories, and also allows state and local agencies to provide a general description of disciplinary actions such as suspensions, demotions and firings. The House initially passed similar language, but dropped it in favor of a provision that would only make public disciplinary actions after an employee was convicted of a crime.

'Don't trash somebody'

The House provision would make public even less information on disciplinary actions than is available today, according to the N.C. Press Association. North Carolina already has one of the most secretive personnel laws in the country, making public little more than the current position, status and salary of an employee.

Public employee groups such as the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the N.C. Association of Educators sought the provision. Suzanne Beasley, a SEANC lobbyist, said the public shouldn't get information from state agencies about employee disciplinary matters until someone is convicted of a crime.

"Don't trash somebody before they are proven guilty," she said.

John Bussian, a lobbyist for the press association, said that window of disclosure is too narrow. It would prevent the public from learning details of cases in which employees committed egregious conduct that did not result in a criminal charge. It would also prevent the release of personnel information in cases in which a public employee was charged with a job-related crime.

Staff writers Benjamin Niolet and J. Andrew Curliss and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-812-7895

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