Legislature passes ethics package

STAFF WRITERJuly 10, 2010 

— State lawmakers early this morning passed a comprehensive package of ethics and good government reforms that ups the penalty for exceeding campaign contribution limits, requires more political appointees to disclose fund-raising activities, and expands the amount of personnel information of state and local employees that's available to the public.

"What's extraordinary about this particular (legislation) is it does more for transparency and open government than any changes we've made since I've been here in the General Assembly," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat in her fourth term.

State government scandals prompted much of the legislation, but some provisions addressed long-running battles over access to government records. Starting Oct. 1, those who win public records lawsuits against government agencies have a much better chance of winning legal costs, and an array of personnel records that have been withheld for at least 35 years will be made available.

Those personnel records include salary and employment histories, and the release of dismissal letters for public employees, N&O staff writer Dan Kane reports.

Only one lawmaker voted against the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said he was disappointed that the release of documents explaining disciplinary actions was not extended to demotions and suspensions.

"The bill as a whole, I think you can vote for this and have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about, or nothing to be worried about," Berger said. "But again, I'm concerned about the personnel disclosure issues and don't feel that the bill goes far enough."

The personnel provisions follow a recent News & Observer series, Keeping Secrets, that found North Carolina's current personnel law to be among the most secretive in the nation. The new provisions move North Carolina more toward the middle of the pack, but still not as open as Ohio, Florida and several other states that make most personnel records public.

Others were also not happy with the legislation. Jane Pinsky, executive director of the N.C. Coalition of Lobbying and Governmental Reform, said lawmakers should not have backed away from a House provision that would limit the amount of campaign money those with state contracts could give.

The Senate fended off the provision, contending it created an unfair playing field because companies looking to win contracts could give.

"The fact that they couldn't come up with something to deal with pay to play is a disappointment," Pinsky said.

The House and Senate agreed to study contractor giving and public financing for the state treasurer and other Council of State races.

The bill now goes to Gov. Bev Perdue.

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