State Politics

Concerns raised about special funds to be controlled by top NC lawmakers

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, says the plan expands “pay-to-play” politics in North Carolina.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, says the plan expands “pay-to-play” politics in North Carolina. newsobserver.com

Politically active groups in North Carolina are calling a last-minute add-on to a bill Thursday a “shocking” piece of legislation and are urging a veto by Gov. Pat McCrory.

The state Senate and House set a new primary date for March 15 on Thursday but also included in the legislation a new provision that would allow for new fundraising committees, called “affiliate party committees,” that would be controlled by the top powers at the legislature.

The new form of fundraising committee would be allowed to act as a political party. The legislation allows for four such committees, headed by the House Speaker, Senate leader and their counterparts in the minority political party.

The new system would allow those leaders to raise money to support candidates without going through the state political parties.

The plan expands “pay-to-play” politics in North Carolina, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a campaign watchdog group.

He called the accounts slush funds and said the legislation opens the door for legislators to receive unlimited donations from special interests, lobbyists and corporations even during legislative sessions when the lawmakers cannot raise money themselves.

State law places restrictions on individual candidate campaign committees. One donor can only give up to $5,200 per candidate per election cycle.

Hall wants McCrory to veto the bill due to its “corrosive expansion of power for elites in the General Assembly.”

Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, echoed Hall’s criticisms in a Friday commentary, adding that grassroot Republicans are upset with the change.

“They think it diminishes the role of political parties by giving legislative leaders the ability to control massive amounts of money on their own that they can use to punish or reward other candidates,” he wrote.

The legislation appears at a time of strain between Republicans in power and the state party apparatus – something that existed in recent years on the Democratic side. Many of the state’s leading elected Republicans did not back the newly elected chairman of the party. The GOP’s executive director recently resigned as well.

The Republican Party blitzed its members with an email ahead of the legislative vote, calling the new provision a “surprise ‘poison pill’” that was an “outrageous addition” to a bill about setting the election primary date.

The party underscored what it also saw as a significant change, with the new fundraising committees set to compete against the state parties with the ability to channel money to candidates that would typically receive it through the parties.

“Caucus leadership will be able to spend this money however they see fit, unbound by the party rules traditional party leaders are constrained by,” the GOP email reads. “They will be able to insert themselves into primary contests. These committees will enjoy the right to use the names, abbreviations and symbols of the state parties and generally exercise trademark rights. It is an outrageous addition to the bill.”

The GOP email added: “In a word, these ‘affiliated party committees’ aim to make the state political parties irrelevant.”

Kimberly Reynolds, executive director of N.C. Democratic Party, said the Republican-led effort seems intended to impact issues at the Republican Party headquarters. She said the state Democratic Party doesn’t “anticipate any changes.”

A number of House Republicans voted against the bill as it came to the floor, many voicing frustration about the added provision, which first appeared in the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday. Nineteen decided not to concur with the Senate plan, in a 52-49 vote.

‘Declaration of Independence’

Michael Weisel, a Raleigh Democratic campaign finance and elections attorney, said Friday “this could be seen as a ‘Declaration of Independence’ by the legislative leaders from their State Party Chair and organization.”

“In the past, sometimes legislative leaders would be at odds with their State Party Chair and would use county party executive committees as a conduit for unlimited fundraising,” Weisel said. “This provision would make that unnecessary.”

Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican, nominated Gastonia attorney Craig Collins for NCGOP chair in June, saying “we cannot afford to hand the keys to the GOP headquarters to someone who is inexperienced and untested.” But Friday, Lewis said he supports and appreciates the work of the NCGOP and its new chairman, Hasan Harnett.

Lewis defended the bill and new provision in the House saying, if created, these legislative political committees would increase transparency because every donation and expenditure would be reported.

Lewis said Friday that the public won’t see any differences in the giving patterns of the donors, but that the public will have a much easier time identifying any lobbying groups or corporations donating. Anyone could look at the reports, which are made public through the State Board of Elections, for the caucus fund instead of combing through the massive list of donations to the state party, he said.

He added that he doesn’t see the reason for angst in the state party over the issue, saying it provides “less liability for the party (to) incur.”

Knopf: 919-829-8955; @tayknopf

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