Lawmakers making progress on reform agenda

By Rob Schofield

North Carolina may soon have a new and dramatically improved set of ethics, fundraising and lobbying laws on the books that should benefit nonprofits.

A month into the 2006 “short” session, members of the state House of Representatives are making real headway on a long-awaited package of reform bills that seem to be winning bipartisan support.

To top things off, the reform bills themselves are proceeding in an open process that has featured ample opportunity for input from lawmakers, interest groups and citizens.

While the bills cover a wide array of topics — from the very specific, like banning the bundling of blank checks, to the very general, like developing new structures for overseeing legislative and executive branch ethics — no issue has received greater attention than that of lobbying reform.

On this subject, reform advocates, lawmakers and regulators are struggling to find practical answers to a host of seemingly obvious, but “devil-in-the-details” kinds of questions.

For instance, what (short of an expensive golf outing) should constitute an improper gift to a public official?

A free lunch? Bag of peanuts? Wall plaque? Glossy brochure? Fact sheet?

Who should be required to register as a lobbyist?

Should it merely be the people who tramp the halls on Jones Street on a daily basis, or should an organization’s paid staff who come to Raleigh a couple of times a year for a “lobby day” be included, too?

What about a lawyer representing a client before an environmental commission?

How often should each lobbyist report on his or her expenses — monthly or quarterly?

Many of these questions are of great relevance to nonprofits. While the state’s nonprofit community strongly supports lobbying reform as a critical means of leveling the playing field between political “haves” and “have-nots,” nonprofits are also committed to the enactment of a system that is logical and easy to administer and that encourages participation in the lawmaking process.

Fortunately, political momentum thus far appears to be on the side of drawing reasonable and understandable lines.

Leaders like state Reps. Joe Hackney and Deborah Ross have worked hard to develop practical solutions that both make sense in the day-to-day and that advance the reform banner.

Let’s hope they are able to sustain the momentum they’ve established.

Rob Schofield is director of public policy and government relations for the N.C. Center for Nonprofits in Raleigh.

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