Despite efforts to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests in North Carolina elections, the top leaders of the General Assembly are on track to break two records this year. They are raising more money from special-interest PACs, plus a larger share of their grand totals, than any legislators in history.
House Speaker Thom Tillis had taken in $341,450 from dozens of political action committees by July 1, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger had raised $320,600 from a similar list of special interests, led by the PACs of utilities, banks, health care providers, insurance firms and various trade groups.
These figures exceed by a whopping $100,000 the amounts raised at a similar point in the 2010 election by Democratic House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.
At that time, Democrats were being criticized by Republicans and independent groups (including Democracy North Carolina) for nurturing a “pay to play” culture that rewarded political donors with favorable treatment.
But rather than diminishing, campaign reports reveal that the new Republican leaders of the General Assembly are relying even more heavily on money from special interests with a legislative agenda.
Speaker Tillis has gotten 36 percent of his $946,000 total so far from PACs, while 33 percent of Senate leader Berger’s $974,000 comes from PACs. The comparable numbers are 25 percent and 20 percent for Hackney and Basnight at a similar point in 2010.
Now guess who holds the record for raising the most money from PACs in a two-year fundraising cycle? According to our research, it’s disgraced Democratic House Speaker Jim Black. He took in $385,100 or 29 percent of his $1,329,900 total from PACs in the 24-month 2001-2002 election cycle.
Black’s fundraising practices triggered a federal and state investigation into his cozy relationships with lobbyists and deal-making with special interests. The resulting scandal, and his felony conviction, led to major changes in the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws in 2006 and 2007, including a ban on lobbyists making or bundling donations for state legislators.
Unfortunately, a recent solicitation uncovered by WRAL-TV shows that lobbyists are again under unusual pressure to help a House Speaker with campaign cash.
The email solicitation from Tillis’ political director tells lobbyists and special-interest leaders to essentially get your PAC to send in a check by a September deadline or explain when the money will be coming – and make it a big check!
It’s hard to read this appeal as anything but a shakedown. Lobbyists and groups with issues in the General Assembly are being pressured to pony up to the head man. It’s the textbook definition of pay-to-play politics and it sends us backwards to the sad era of Jim Black – just the opposite of the new day we were promised.
The appeal is not illegal – it stops short of threats or direct promises of legislative favors in return for a donation. In small print at the bottom of the email, it also includes a caveat, telling lobbyists that the Tillis campaign committee “cannot accept contributions from lobbyists” but is “providing you with a copy of this information simply to inform you and request that you pass the information along to any interested parties and recommend support where appropriate.”
While technically legal, the solicitation illustrates how the arrogance of power, combined with the chase for big money, can lead public-spirited lawmakers down the path of deal-making and corruption.
Sadly, more legislators from both the Democratic and Republican parties are sending solicitations to lobbyists with similar escape-clause language, hoping to obey the law while exerting pressure on those who want something from them.
To rescue all of us from the treacherous money chase, Democracy North Carolina has long promoted a public financing alternative for candidates who rely on small contributions from voters rather than special-interest donations. Such a program exists now for candidates for the state’s appellate courts and some executive branch offices, but not for the state legislature. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the constitutionality of these programs while also sanctioning more ways for private money to distort honest politics.
Even with all the money pouring in from self-centered donors, voters are still the ones who cast the ballots. We must fight to keep control of our elections, and challenge politicians and ourselves to put the public’s interest ahead of the special interests.
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina ( democracy-nc.org).
By the numbers