Two years ago, Republican leaders in Raleigh hammered the Democrats then in power for nurturing a “pay to pay” culture that rewarded political donors with special favors.
A broad coalition of non-partisan groups, including Democracy North Carolina, agreed that the money-drenched system needed a major shake-up.
But two years later, the new Republican leaders in the General Assembly have blocked all campaign reform efforts, including proposals to require better disclosure of the millions in out-of-state mystery money polluting our elections. And the dependence on big donors has gotten even worse.
In fact, the top GOP leaders are on track to break the NC record for raising the most money from special-interest PACs in a two-year election cycle.
As of July 1, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger have each received more than $320,000 from dozens of political action committees, led by the PACs of utilities, health care providers, chemical producers, insurance firms, banks and various trade groups.
That’s a whopping $125,000 increase over what Democratic House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight raised from PACs at a similar point in the 2010 election.
Rather than changing course, the new Republican leaders are relying even more heavily on self-serving donors who want — and often get — special tax breaks, exemptions from public-health regulations, and other favors.
Significantly, the man who holds the record for raising the most money from PACs is disgraced Democratic House Speaker Jim Black. He took in $385,100 from PACs in the 2002 election. Black’s corrupt fund-raising practices led to a federal indictment and major changes in North Carolina’s ethics and campaign finance laws, including a ban on lobbyists donating to legislators.
Unfortunately, a recent solicitation uncovered by a Raleigh TV station shows that lobbyists are again under unusual pressure to finance a House Speaker’s campaign.
The solicitation from Speaker Tillis’ political director tells lobbyists and industry leaders to essentially get your PAC to send in a check by a September deadline or explain when the money will arrive — and make it a big check!
The shakedown message is unmistakable. Lobbyists and groups with issues in the legislature need to pony up to the head man. It’s the textbook definition of pay-to-play politics and it sends us backwards to the sad era of Jim Black — just the opposite of the new day we were promised.
To avoid being illegal, the appeal includes a caveat saying the Tillis campaign committee “cannot accept contributions from lobbyists” but is “providing you with a copy of this information simply to inform you and request that you pass the information along to any interested parties and recommend support where appropriate.”
Sadly, more Democratic and Republican legislators are sending solicitations to lobbyists with similar escape clauses, hoping to obey the law while exerting pressure on those who want something from them.
Serious reform of the political system is still needed to rescue all of us from the treacherous money chase — including beefed up disclosure, a robust public financing alternative for candidates who rely on small donations from voters, and a reversal of the Supreme Court’s ruling that corporate political spending is simply free speech.
Big money screams, but voters are still the ones who cast the ballots. We must fight to keep control of our elections, and challenge politicians and ourselves to put the public’s interest ahead of the special interests.
The WRAL-TV story about the Tillis fund-raising appeal can be viewed at: http://www.wral.com/news/state/nccapitol/story/11453437/.
— Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan voting rights and campaign reform organization. For more information, visit the website democracy-nc.org.