RALEIGH — A move is under way in the Republican-controlled legislature to reshape how elections, ethics and lobbying are overseen in North Carolina government.
GOP lawmakers are seeking to create a newly empowered Ethics Commission, which would take over high-profile campaign finance investigations of the sort that centered on former Gov. Mike Easley and former House Speaker Jim Black. Previously such investigations had been handled by the State Board of Elections.
The Ethics Commission also would take responsibility for the registration and regulation of state lobbyists, but only a fraction of the existing staff would monitor lobbying. The function is now handled by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who boasted during her U.S. Senate campaign last fall about her willingness to stand up to lobbyists.
"The idea is to get the politics out of it and get it in hands of professionals," said state Sen. Andrew Brock, the co-chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees funding for the elections board. "We need to have an independent and professional group. By consolidation of all three we will be able to share services, share buildings and basically overall lower the cost of delivering services."
The proposal - the subject of a House and Senate bill, and part of the House budget that is being voted on this week - is fraught with political implications. The House rejected a Democratic amendment to kill the plan by a 65-52 vote majority on Tuesday.
For instance, the GOP plan moves the Campaign Finance Division to the Ethics Commission.
Kim Westbrook Strach, the deputy director of the division, has led the investigation into Gov. Bev Perdue's use of private jets during her campaign. Republicans last year accused State Board of Elections Chairman Larry Leake of hampering that investigation.
Leake, a Mars Hill attorney and a Democrat, has denied trying to stymie a Perdue investigation. He has noted that under his leadership, the Democrat-dominated elections board has a long history of investigating campaign irregularities involving Democratic office holders, some of whom later went to prison, such as Black, former Rep. Thomas Wright, and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps.
"If they view the work product of the N.C. State Board of Elections over the last 15 to 20 years, I don't see how they could possibly contend or believe that the State Board of Elections has been unfair or biased," Leake said.
Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a bill to merge the State Board of Elections with the Ethics Commission, with six of the nine members appointed by the legislature, removing control of elections from the governor to the legislature.
Both Perdue and the legislature have been looking at major restructuring of state government as a way to deal with a budget shortfall estimated at between $1.9 billion and $2.5 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"We are nickeling and dime-ing everything in the state budget, to avoid personnel layoffs," Brock said. He said if all three agencies were combined $500,000 per year in lease space alone could be saved.
Many states have single agencies that combine various aspects of the regulation of campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.
"In terms of the restructuring. there is probably a lot of sense in bringing it under one roof," said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Lobbying and Government Reform Coalition.
But Pinsky said such a substantive policy change should be debated in separate bills, not as a provision in a budget bill. In past years, Pinsky noted, Republicans have sharply criticized Democratic lawmakers for making major policy changes as part of budgets.
Government watchdog groups are also concerned because the elections board is known for its transparency, while the Ethics Commission is often shrouded in secrecy - in part because of the different laws governing both bodies.
"It's night and day - it's dramatic," said Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, which monitors campaign finance. "The board of elections is very accessible and makes information available and understands their mission is to serve the public and it is in their interest to have an informed public. I think the Ethics Commission is feeling its way still in regard to what they can realize without compromising some standard that is less than clear to them. They tend to lean on the side of withholding information."
Leake said he was also concerned that the House was proposing to slash the elections board budget by 35 percent just as North Carolina was preparing for the major 2012 election year.
"We recognize that times are tough and the General Assembly is trying to make the dollar go as far it can go," Leake said. But he also said there were numerous problems with the House budget. Under the House proposal, local election boards would now have to look for guidance from two state agencies, instead of one. He also said a proposal to eliminate eight district technicians would be a major hardship on rural and poor county election boards. He said there already wasn't enough money to adequately monitor campaign finance.
Brock, the state senator, said the eight elections technicians were initially brought in when new voting equipment was being installed and the positions eventually became permanent. "The county board of elections understand the new equipment and understand the process and can do it without the help of eight people," he said.
Fewer eyes on lobbyists
Both the House and Senate plans would transfer the lobbying registration function from the Secretary of State's office to the Ethics Commission. But in doing so, the House bill would cut the staff from nine to three positions.
Marshall said her office's handling of lobbyist regulation has served the public well. "I don't know what they are trying to fix, but I don't think this is going to enhance confidence in government or the transparency and the ability to manage the lobbying law."
There are about 800 lobbyists. They and their employers must register and file regular reports on the money they spend to influence legislation.
Marshall said three people can not handle the workload.
"What has happened in this state the last five to 10 years is why the public should care," Marshall said, referring to the legislative scandals. "North Carolina citizens want transparency in government. They want to know who is influencing the policy makers here."
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