Wednesday, July 07, 2010

No one wants to rein in big party contributions

There's a lot to be said about the ethics bills passed by both the House and Senate Tuesday that would beef up the state's ethics laws. And while I think the House version of the two bills is stronger, there is one provision in the Senate version that is much to be admired. Sponsored by Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, it would open up public records so that state agencies can disclose why an employee was fired for misconduct. But Wake County representatives whose districts include a number of state employees opposed the measure, and all but two legislators agreed with them. Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat, and Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican, have had reservations about due process and branding an ex-employee who might be contesting a dismissal -- and who may ultimately be cleared. So the House voted overwhelmingly to keep current protections that will in effect prevent such information from being disclosed. The two different bills now go to a conference committee.

On a separate issue, Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, deserves a lot of credit for waging a fight few were willing to get into: reining in the huge contributions that political parties can give in legislative and other races. They ought to be subject to the same limits as individual donors. If the legislature -- Democrats and Republicans -- wanted to rein in some campaign contribution abuses, they'd agree with Blust. But they don't and they won't.

Chris Fitzsimon of N.C. PolicyWatch had an interesting take on this today. Here's an excerpt from his blog :

Members of both the House and Senate deserve credit for passing ethics reform, though the Senate leadership needs to recognize that the House version is stronger and agree to its provisions soon so a reform package can pass before the session adjourns, which could come as early as Friday.

But there's a flip side to the bipartisan consensus about meaningful reforms and it was on display recently too when Representative John Blust tried to convince a House committee to add a provision limiting how much political parties can give to lawmakers' campaigns.

Contributions from individuals and PACs are limited to $4,000 per election cycle, based on the reasoning that one special interest should not be able to buy significant influence with a legislator by giving huge sums of money to his or her campaign.

But contributions from political parties in North Carolina are not limited, making a mockery of campaign finance laws. Legislative leaders raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and pass it on to their political party, which then doles it out in massive amounts to legislators in close races. Special interests or wealthy individuals can give as much as they want to political parties, providing another pot of money to distribute.

The Democratic Party gave more than $500,000 to one Senate candidate in 2008. Republicans also legally laundered money from the party to candidates, just in smaller amounts.

Blust said on the House floor that limiting party contributions is a key part of battling the pay for play mentality that has developed in Raleigh and Blust is right, something you don't read often in this space.

House Minority Leader Paul Stam led the opposition to Blust's proposal in the House committee, claiming the limits were unconstitutional, which is absurd. Many states impose the limits and courts have ruled many times that limiting contributions does not violate freedom of speech rights.

Blust tried again on the House floor, but was unable to convince his colleagues to suspend the rules to allow another vote on his amendment.

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