Politics

Cookie-Jar Clampdown

Tougher lobby laws are being discussed all over the country. A few states have enacted them. Whether they will work remains to be seen.
by | April 2007
 

Until last year, the North Carolina legislature did not spend a lot of time worrying about its reputation. It had never gone through a scandal on the order of South Carolina's 1989 "Operation Lost Trust" vote-buying affair, which led to indictments against one-tenth of the legislature, or of the "Tennessee Waltz" scandal of 2005, which led to the arrest of seven state legislators on federal bribery and extortion charges. "We've been lucky to have clean government for most of North Carolina's history," says Tom Ross, president of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.

Indeed, when a bipartisan citizens' commission named by the secretary of state proposed in 2004 that the legislature close a gaping set of loopholes in its lobby laws, its ideas went nowhere. "I don't think there was enough interest, and certainly there was no pressure to do anything," says Bob Phillips, who heads Common Cause North Carolina.

That all changed in late 2005, when a series of newspaper stories began detailing a raft of unsavory doings by aides and associates of House Speaker Jim Black, and the federal and state investigations into them. Black had held the post for four terms, riding herd over a slim Democratic majority, earning respect as a consensus-builder and loyalty for his prodigious fundraising efforts on behalf of colleagues.

The catalog of misdeeds, however, was a long one. The woman who ran the House page program had arranged to have teenage pages stay with her son, a felon with a history of drug and alcohol problems; when that became public, Black made her House historian, but after $80,000 in payment, she produced only a 23-page report filled with mistakes and grammatical errors. Last year, a Republican-turned-Democratic legislator named Michael Decker pled guilty to taking $50,000 from an unnamed Democrat to switch parties in 2003, thus putting him in position to cast the deciding vote that kept Black in power as co- speaker after the Republicans had appeared to take the majority. Black's former political director pled guilty to failing to register as a lobbyist on behalf of a company seeking the contract to run the new state lottery--which Black had played a key role in creating. Similarly, one of Black's first appointees to the lottery commission was forced off after it was revealed he, too, had failed to report financial ties to the same lottery vendor.

Black himself remained only circumstantially touched by the scandals- -until two months ago, when he stunned Raleigh by pleading guilty to accepting $29,000 from three chiropractors in exchange for pushing legislation they wanted. He followed that up a few days later by accepting a plea agreement to state charges that the party-switching bribe to Decker had come from him.

By then, though, events at the capitol had passed him by. Well before his court pleas, Black had stepped down as speaker and had unwittingly served as the catalyst for a sweeping ethics reform package. The 2006 legislation, shepherded through the House by Joe Hackney, who was then majority leader and this year became speaker, tightened the state's lobby disclosure laws, enacted a gift ban, made it harder for lobbyists to bundle campaign contributions and strengthened the state's ethics commission. "The scandals," says Tom Ross, "gave light to other kinds of issues and concerns people had. No one saw it as just a problem that the speaker had that had to be fixed. It was seen as a more systemic problem--a recognition that we just weren't as open and transparent as we should be, that there was a lot happening that wasn't disclosed."

PETRI DISHES FOR NEW IDEAS

North Carolina isn't alone in that realization. Capitol hallways from New York to Alaska are awash in virtuous intentions this year, which is hardly surprising in the wake of voters' focus on legislative integrity in last November's elections. While their ire might have been aimed first at a tarnished Congress, state legislative leaders paid attention. "This has been cutting a broad swath," says Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Even if states have had no scandals, they're interested in making sure their general assembly and legislators are ethical, and that there's an ethical environment there."

Yet the dynamics of reform are also being fed by circumstances peculiar to the states: in some, their own homegrown scandals, and in many, a growing sense that longstanding capitol folkways need refurbishing. As state Senator Kate Brown, an Oregon Democrat, puts it, "The states have become the petri dishes for new and evolving ideas," and the increasing importance of legislatures as engines of domestic policy has brought with it a pair of pressures that demand attention: increasingly expensive legislative campaigns that push legislators to act more like members of Congress in their search for funding; and growing numbers of highly paid lobbyists seeking whatever edge they can find. States where a few years ago a legislative campaign topping $50,000 would have raised eyebrows are now seeing campaigns requiring well into six figures, and in closely fought states, the most expensive races can top $500,000 or even $1 million. Some 40,000 lobbyists now focus on the 50 statehouses and help fund those campaigns, according to the Center on Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. In 2005, lobbying expenditures totaled $1.16 billion in the 42 states that reported them, a 22 percent increase over the year before.

In that atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of legislative reformers look askance at the gifts, trips, meals and other forms of social lubrication that spill from the pockets of well- heeled interests. Nor do they like the close-mouthed, none-of-your- business legislative culture in some states that leaves ordinary citizens wondering just what all that cash is buying. To the most determined reformers, indeed, the recent spate of rules changes and ethics legislation should be considered just the beginning. "You start with compliance, because if you make it illegal to take free sports tickets and travel, then people won't be doing it," says state Representative Deborah Ross, a North Carolina Democrat who has played a prominent role in implementing that state's reforms. "But you have to ask, what kind of culture did you have that made people think that would be acceptable in the first place? So the question is, after we do this compliance, will the culture fundamentally shift to where the public good is considered the primary concern of legislators?"

It's a fair question. And if three states where reform has dominated the agenda this year--North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Oregon--are any guide, it will not be answered anytime soon.

HABITS AND TRADITIONS

Since the passage of North Carolina's new ethics law, attention in Raleigh has understandably focused on what it means for legislators and lobbyists. Every legislator has had to attend a two-hour training session--and, says Deborah Ross, all the sessions have lasted longer because members have had so many questions. "We didn't have that opportunity in the past," she adds, "because that wasn't the kind of culture we had, where ethics was front of mind."

The question, of course, is whether the new legislation will change for good what Hackney calls "a habit, a tradition in the way that entertaining and lobbying are done." The issue, reformers agree, was never so much the meals or the travel that lobbyists were able to buy as the exclusive access to legislators' time and attention that a meal or golf outing secured--time and attention that ordinary citizens and non-profit lobbyists found harder to get. Deborah Ross is optimistic, if only because many members of the legislature are relatively new and haven't yet risen to positions of influence where they'd expect or solicit the little kindnesses of lobbyists. "If you change the culture for half the House this session," she says, "then that's a new culture they'll perpetuate."

Common Cause's Bob Phillips, however, isn't so sure. "We'll have transparency that we never did have," he says, but points out that last year's legislation still allows lobbyists to raise funds for legislative campaigns. "The real action and power now comes in the campaign contributions. Lobbyists raising money for elected officials is where they gain their power. They develop relationships that the average citizen can't have with legislators."

WHO'S PAYING FOR DINNER?

Lobbyists' influence also is at issue in Oregon. There, newspaper reports last year revealed that the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors' Association had treated seven legislators to trips to Maui in 2002 and 2004--gifts that neither the lobbyists nor the legislators reported. The subsequent coverage was careful to note that beer-and-wine lobbyist Paul Romain had successfully fended off any increase in the state's beer tax, which hasn't changed for 30 years.

The scandal actually broke in the midst of a low-profile effort to update Oregon's ethics code, which has been in place slightly longer than the beer tax. The Oregon Law Commission, a bipartisan group of lawyers, legislators and academics, had been asked by Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski in 2003 to look at improving the code and was readying its recommendations for the 2007 session. These were mostly incremental changes: restricting the use of campaign contributions, increasing fines for violations and requiring more frequent disclosure of lobbyists' gifts.

Not surprisingly, the stories about the Maui trips blew a hole in that discussion. "Those stories raised questions like, jeez, all we want you to do is report, and you're not even doing that," says Janice Thompson, director of the Money In Politics Action Research Project in Portland. "But the real issue in the public's eye wasn't that they weren't reported, it was why are they doing these trips in the first place."

That was essentially Jeff Merkley's response. Merkley, the Democratic leader while Republicans ran the House, became speaker after Democrats won a majority in last November's elections. He decided that rather than wait to craft ethics legislation, he would work to change the House rules at the start of the session. "When you get into the nitty- gritty of legislation, it's very easy to get distracted by 'what if' arguments," he says. "I wanted to say from day one, 'Here we are, let's change the culture.'"

So the House banned trips paid for by lobbyists; banned entertainment paid for by lobbyists; and instituted a $10 maximum on gifts, including meals. "Overnight," says Merkley, "behavior changed. Lobbyists told me that before, they'd been beseeched by members, 'Why don't you take me to lunch? Who's going to take me to dinner?' That changed. As one lobbyist put it, he's going to save $20,000 over the next six months."

The Senate, meanwhile, has opted to go the legislative route, building off the Law Commission's recommendations. Although it has tightened up limits on lobbyist-sponsored gifts, meals and travel, its preferred approach has been to strengthen disclosure laws. This, in turn, has meant strengthening the state ethics board, known as the Government Standards and Practices Commission, which ostensibly oversees the behavior of some 160,000 elected, appointed, hired and volunteer public officials at every level of government in the state. This is a tall order under any circumstances, but the legislature made it much harder in recent years by cutting the GSPC's funding and capabilities, mostly as retaliation for commission inquiries into ethics complaints.

The response, led by Senate Rules Committee Chair Kate Brown, has been to try to find an independent source of funding for the commission. "It's deplorable to me," she says, "that we as a legislature would hold the purse-strings to the very agency that holds us accountable."

Still, it is unclear to what extent the new rules and legislation will convincingly stem the cozy insiderness of "the lobby," as it is known in Salem. As Merkley points out, in one 2006 House race, the two candidates spent $1.4 million on their campaigns. "It's hard to raise sums that large by just knocking on doors," he says. And in Oregon, fundraising tactics that are illegal elsewhere--such as using corporate funds to pay for legislative campaigns--are permitted.

OLD GUARD VS. REFORMERS

Pennsylvania, too, is awash in campaign cash: It places no limits on contributions, although it does prohibit corporations from making direct donations to candidates. It was also--until a few months ago-- the only state with no law to regulate lobbying activities, and even now reformers dismiss the new law as pitifully weak.

So you'd think that overhauling campaign-finance and lobbying rules might stand atop reformers' wish lists in the Keystone State. And they do. But so does reforming pretty much everything about the state legislature, which until this year operated in a way that your average Gilded Age political boss would recognize in an instant. "The legislature here is an anachronism," says Barry Kauffman, the state's Common Cause director, "and it's locked into a history more than 100 years in the past."

Until 2005, not many people cared, outside a handful of reformers in Harrisburg. That summer, however, the legislature handed itself, state judges and a small number of state officials a pay raise that wound up causing the biggest political ruckus the state has seen in many years. Its reverberations still have not died down.

The issue wasn't so much the raise itself as how it was handled. Using another bill as a vehicle, a legislative committee convened late at night, stripped the bill's original language and substituted the raise, then reported it to the floor, where legislators at 2 a.m. voted without debate to pass it; even had they had time to read it, the bill wouldn't have told them much, since it essentially pegged officials' salaries to the money earned by their federal counterparts. Democratic Governor Ed Rendell quickly signed the measure.

The tactics weren't new. Control of the Pennsylvania legislature has long rested in the hands of a few leaders, and since the state sidestepped the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century, the only checks on their power are the governor and state supreme court justices--who, in Harrisburg's close-knit political community, tend to see disagreement merely as an opportunity for deal making. The public and rank-and-file legislators have usually been treated as mere annoyances. So, for instance, in 2004, a measure allowing slot machines into Pennsylvania that had been pushed by Rendell as a means of providing property-tax relief was substituted for another bill over the July 4 weekend, and passed with no public input. "A lot of folks wanted a public discussion about what is potentially the biggest change in social policy here since the advent of the automobile," says Tim Potts, a former legislative staffer who runs a reform group called Democracy Rising. "But everyone outside that building was prevented from having that discussion. A lot of people were really angry."

Not, however, as angry as they became a year later when the pay raise went through. The press, which knew a good story when it saw one, filled up not only with pieces about the legislature's close-mouthed ways but about legislative perks, from a monthly allowance for leasing a car to a $140 per diem for travel expenses no matter how close a legislator lives to Harrisburg. A few months later, voters for the first time in the state's history turned out a sitting Supreme Court justice, and shortly after that, the legislature rescinded the pay raise. But the hubbub did not die down, and in last year's elections, between defeats and retirements, fully one-fifth of the legislature's incumbents left office.

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

The result now is that political virtue is the coin of the realm in Harrisburg. "Everyone in the city is a reformer," says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "This revolt from the voters genuinely has thrown the fear of God into legislators." One result is that, although Democrats took a one-seat majority in the House in November, their longtime leader, Bill DeWeese, was unable to win the speakership; instead, a Republican who was put forward as a reformer was made speaker--the result, ironically enough, of a backroom deal struck at the governor's mansion.

Reform is also now on the legislative agenda, in the form of a commission created by new Speaker Dennis O'Brien. Its Republican co- chair, David Steil, was part of an abortive reform effort about a decade ago to open up the rules and give legislators more time to consider bills before voting on them. "I think things are headed in a positive direction," Steil says. "There's a feeling that we have to move on this, that there'll never be a better time than now."

The commission is focusing first on rules changes internal to the House. "They are all focused on ensuring that issues or bills stand or fall on their merits," he says. "So that members can offer their ideas, assure themselves of having their day in court, and ultimately a vote." Once that work is done, Steil says, it will be time to discuss a long list of potential reforms, from establishing an ethics committee to trimming the power of the House Rules Committee--the leadership's choke point--to campaign finance reform, term limits, even cutting the size of the legislature.

Reformers believe that, as Potts says, "This is the best environment for improving the way our government works that I've seen in the 35 years I've been on this scene." But they are also cautious. Steil believes that the number of legislators committed to reform is still a minority, and despite the election of a wave of legislators who ran on reform, the old guard still holds considerable sway. "We absolutely cannot let our guard down," says Potts, "and we absolutely cannot assume good things are going to happen. I will believe it when I see it, and not one second before."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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