For generations, North Carolina has had a reputation for clean government. And while there have been some notable (and well-publicized) exceptions, our overall reputation remains high.
Times have changed, however, and the governmental process has grown much more complex. There are now many more lobbyists involved with the legislative and executive branches of our government, and our laws spelling out the lobbying rules have not kept up with the changing times.
All of our next-door neighbors — Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina — now have more up-to-date lobbying laws than we do, and so do most of the states adjacent to them.
Although the great majority of lobbyists follow the rules, the North Carolina law has some loopholes that most of us would say need to be closed. One is what’s called “goodwill lobbying.” This involves situations in which legislators or others in government are taken to dinner, a basketball game, a golf tournament, or on a vacation trip by a lobbyist.
This naturally builds “good will” between those who are spending the money and those who are the recipients. But as long as no legislation is discussed during the trip or event, this is allowed as an exception under the current rules. Still, it could allow legislators or others in government to receive a trip to the Masters Tournament, the NCAA finals, a Bowl game, etc. without any public accounting.
In the final analysis, of course, the ultimate result depends on the integrity of individuals, and scoundrels will never be completely deterred by rules and regulations. At the same time, we want to do as much as we can to ensure that people have confidence in their government. If we know what is happening, we can judge for ourselves whether our officials are doing a good job of representing us.
Lobbying rules must necessarily be written in a way that doesn’t cross the line and infringe on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. But by having these goodwill expenses reported and made public, we can take another step toward open government.
A proposal currently before the Legislature would remove the goodwill exception to our lobbying laws. As is often the case, however, its passage may well depend on whether our legislators hear from the folks back home that we think it’s a good idea.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
Thank you for contacting your state representatives and senators in support of this proposal.
[James Holshouser is a former N.C. governor; William Friday is UNC system president emeritus.]