Here’s something else besides money the 1 percent have more than their share of: cloutspecifically, influence in Raleigh.
It’s hard to imagine a time when a well-placed campaign donation didn’t nudge a bill one direction or another, but with the 2012 election cycle bearing down, early indications are that the state capital will be awash in more money than it knows what to do with. Historically, that’s when the mischief happens.
The first hint we’ll get of who’s playing Moneyball in 2012 is when state Sen. David Rouzer’s latest federal campaign finance form arrives. Rouzer, who is running in the Republican primary for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District, is a special case, a sitting state legislator authorized to raise money during a session, although only for his congressional bid. His federal campaign is also exempt from rules banning lobbyists’ contributions to state legislators. This point was underscored last month at a major fundraiser at the home of lobbyist Theresa Kostrzewa, whose client list has included Rent-A-Center, Wal-Mart and Smithfield Foods.
The event, which featured special guests including state Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger and other GOP senators, must have been successful. Rouzer, who hopes to clear the primary and unseat Democratic congressman Mike McIntyre in a now more GOP-friendly NC-7, announced last week that his quarterly report, due Nov. 1, will show that he has raised nearly $200,000 in just six weeks, a pace that puts him in a strong position in the primary.
As for state campaign coffers, it will be difficult to get the full picture of how money flowed during the 2011 legislative session. The next round of campaign finance reports, which cover July 1 through the end of the year, aren’t due until Jan. 27.
However, Democracy North Carolina has pieced together at least some of the connections between legislation and campaign contributions from political action committees. An early review of the numbers, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC, shows heavy contributions by consumer loan companies eager to win approval to raise interest rates. Telecom companies also spread their wealth as they successfully pushed to limit municipal broadband.
The current rules, Hall said, don’t give legislators of either party an option except to raise money. “There’s no real alternative as we have for state judges with public campaign financing. They have to go to the money suppliers.”
Further complicating matters is a change, instituted by the GOP majority, in how the General Assembly operates. This year, rather than end its regular session and then pop back into town for special sessions, the Legislature chose to adjourn in June and hold a series of mini-sessions in which a broad set of options could be considered. Since legislators aren’t allowed to raise money while in session, fundraising could only take place during the gaps.
Hall said he’s concerned about the practical result of this way of conducting sessions, because it increases the opportunity for more targeted donations with PACs and special interests able to time their influence closer to when specific legislation or policies are being considered. It’s the kind of behavior Republicans railed about in recent elections.
“It’s troublesome. These are the folks you wanted to see take the leadership in getting rid of the pay-for-play culture,” Hall said. “The Republicans really made an issue out of the pay-for-play culture and campaigned on that.”
In the last mini-session, which lasted only three days in September, GOP legislators, with help from a few team-switching Democrats, passed the Defense of Marriage Amendment. However, other bills were flying below the radar, chief among them a sweet deal for the bail bonds industry, which became law last Saturday. The new rules, passed on the last day, make it easier for bonds businesses to recover forfeitures, a change critics say will increase bonding for riskier clients.
The measure was inserted with little notice into technical corrections legislation that happened to be co-sponsored by Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, who isyou guessed ita bail bondsman. He told the Associated Press last week he had no idea how the language got into the bill. Burr asked to be excused from voting on the measure, as did on the Senate side Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who owns a couple of bail bonds businesses and is a mover in the industry’s advocacy group. Apodaca also claimed to be in the dark about the bill’s details.
During a debate, Democrats pointedly inquired how the technical corrections bill, which is not supposed to include controversial items, came to include such a favorable measure to the industry. But they couldn’t derail the bill, and the Republican leadership managed to toss its friends a bone on the way out the door.
Since assuming control of the Legislature, the GOP leadership has responded to any accusations with the mantra “the Democrats did it and did a lot worse.” They’re right about the first part, but regarding the second assertion, if they continue running the place like this, they’re on track to match the bad days of yore.
The timing of the upcoming special session next month was set to have legislators available in case they have to respond to the redistricting proposals. The U.S. Department of Justice has until Nov. 1 to respond to North Carolina’s redistricting plans or request further information.
The DOJ could seek a 30-day extension before issuing its response, but House Minority Leader Joe Hackney said last week that he expects to see something from the department prior to the session. “They’ve indicated they’re not going to ask for an extension,” he said.
Beyond redistricting, the leadership has a wide array of bills to act on. The adjournment resolution from the last session allows the Legislature to take up any veto overrides, conference reports and “any bills relating to election laws.”
Last week, environmental groups disputed a report that House leaders were poised to override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of the Energy Jobs Act, which would open up offshore drilling and set up a system for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in an area along the Deep River.
Environment North Carolina State Director Elizabeth Ouzts said environmental groups are monitoring the bill, but there still aren’t enough votes for an override.
Hackney agreed, but said the vote count is close. “The last time I heard they were still one vote short. I hope they still are.”
The rest of the legislative options include a hurricane relief package, a new casino contract with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that would allow for live table games, and possible revisions to Department of Health and Human Services rules on agencies that administer local mental health programs. The fate of all these measures is uncertain.
“There’s not reliable information at this point,” Hackney said. “One of the reasons is that the House and Senate leaders don’t seem to get along all that well.”
The November legislative session also comes almost exactly one year before the presidential election and at a time when political animosity at the state and national level makes it hard to believe any cooperation will occur prior to the 2012 general election.
Toss into the mix a 10 percent state unemployment rate, a progressive movement relit by the Occupy movement and the ongoing three-way blame-fest among Perdue, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Berger over who botched the Continental Tire deal and sent potentially 1,700 new jobs to South Carolina. Also stirring the pot is the firestorm kicked up by the crass “divide and conquer” remarks by Tillis, who suggested at a town hall meeting two weeks ago that he will push for the drug testing of people who receive public support.
If you think the last few get-togethers were partisan slugfests, just wait until the lights come up on Jones Street next month.