Knowledgeable, respected and popular among Republican state lawmakers, Richard Stevens is a fine choice to lobby for the interests of Wake County in the General Assembly. A former Republican state lawmaker himself, Stevens has been signed at $100,000 through the law firm with which he is of counsel, Smith Anderson.
Stevens served almost five terms in the state Senate and was close to Sen. Phil Berger, the chamber’s president pro tem and state government’s most powerful lawmaker. Stevens also was the long-time Wake County manager.
The question isn’t whether Stevens was a good pick. It is, rather, why the county that is home to the General Assembly and counts senior Republican lawmakers such as House Speaker pro tem Paul Stam of Apex among its representatives needs a lobbyist. A local government hiring help to communicate with state government?
There is no mystery in the answer. First, Republicans in the General Assembly have shown no hesitation about trying to interfere in local government, most notably in abolishing the privilege tax, a modest business levy cities used to cover services and expenses. Limits also were put on when bond issues can be put to voters.
Second, Wake County now has a complete set of Democrats on its Board of County Commissioners, four of them Democrats who just ousted Republican incumbents. Wake County officials rightly worry that GOP leaders in the General Assembly will make mischief with the powers of county government.
Other public lobbyists
The Wake commissioners are hardly alone as a public body in feeling the need for lobbying help. The University of North Carolina system has lobbyists, as do individual campuses and the community college system. These are public institutions of clear value to the state. Why should they have to wait in line for access to lawmakers?
Private colleges have long had lobbying help. They – along with interests such as the fracking and power industries, billboard owners, hog producers and a multitude of other groups – seek the attention of powerful lawmakers. The shift in power has been a boom for so-called “Republican lobbyists” who now find themselves in high demand after decades of influence being in the hands of lobbyists cozy with long-powerful Democratic leaders.
Yes, make no mistake: Lobbyists didn’t suddenly rise to levels of influence under Republicans. The Democrats who reigned in the General Assembly tuned their ears to friendly lobbyists who might connect them with friendly contributors and created this not-so-glorious tradition.
Local governments shouldn’t be able to communicate just with a county or city’s representatives in the legislature; they ought to be the main resources for information and ideas for those lawmakers. Alas, the bitter divide between Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government has made frequent and open discussion difficult.
That is destructive. Why shouldn’t someone such as Stam be able to consult with commissioners such as Chairman James West or newcomer Sig Hutchinson about matters of local and mutual interest? Why shouldn’t a lawmaker be able to trust the word of a commissioner of any party, and vice versa?