By Rob Schofield
Other than the state budget, the most significant measure to win approval from the North Carolina General Assembly this summer was the omnibus lobbying and ethics reform package, House Bill 1843. Among other things, the bill:
* Dramatically expands the authority and scope of the state Ethics Commission.
* Places important new restrictions on gifts by lobbyists to legislators and other governmental officials.
* Better defines who must register as a lobbyist.
* Restricts campaign contributions by lobbyists.
The bill was significantly weakened during the closing weeks of the session: Lawmakers, for instance, removed a ban on the solicitation of campaign contributions by lobbyists, allowed some initial Ethics Commission hearings to be held in closed session and added exceptions to the general ban on gifts.
But the measure does make some headway in “leveling the playing field” between moneyed interests and the nonprofit community.
The law makes it harder for lobbyists to play the stereotypical game of “wining and dining” their way into a lawmaker’s heart – a practice that few, if any, nonprofits have the wherewithal to pursue.
The bill is also an improvement in many ways over a similar, less comprehensive bill adopted last year, particularly with respect to ease of compliance for groups and individuals that make no expenditures on public officials.
For instance, last year’s bill would have required monthly, notarized expenditure reports by all lobbyists – even those who represent small nonprofits that never spend a dime on lawmakers.
The new law makes the reporting requirement a quarterly responsibility and saves monthly reporting for lobbyists that actually make expenditures on public officials; many are still permissible.
Finally, nonprofits and the public should also benefit from the law’s attempt to more clearly define who must register as a lobbyist.
For example, nonprofit employees who only occasionally come to Raleigh or contact a lawmaker may now apply a concrete standard – namely whether they spend 5 percent of their time in any 30-day period engaged in lobbying activities – to determine whether or not they should register.
This change should help encourage more nonprofits to speak out without fear of running afoul of registration laws.
In the months to come, members of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying Reform, including the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, will be developing plans to strengthen and further refine the new law.
Interested parties should be on the lookout for updates and consider joining the effort at www.nclobbyreform.org.
Rob Schofield is director of public policy and government relations for the N.C. Center for Nonprofits in Raleigh.