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Keep the reform train rolling

BY CHRIS FITZSIMON

Government reform is in the air and in the headlines in Raleigh. Gov. Beverly Perdue’s new executive orders to toughen ethics rules for her appointees earned her headlines as a reformer, a label not entirely undeserved given her emphasis on a more open administration than her predecessor, Mike Easley.

The latest change puts more members of state boards and commissions under the state ethics law and allows the governor to dismiss appointees who are indicted or refuse to cooperate with an investigation. That prompted former Easley counsel Ruffin Poole to step down from the board of the Golden Leaf Foundation.

Poole fought off a subpoena to testify at board of elections hearings investigating Easley’s campaign finances. He is now scheduled to appear before the board next week.

Perdue’s announcement and Poole’s resignation come amid almost daily stories of political scandals and allegations of ethical lapses or questionable behavior. Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand has been accused of insider trading and steering DOT contracts to a company on whose board he serves.

Former DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett, a close friend of Rand’s, serves on the corporate board with him and owns significant stock in the company. Another political supporter of Rand’s headed DOT at the time and also owns stock.

Then there are the ongoing investigations into Easley’s activities that have already forced a university chancellor to resign and brought a parade of Easley allies to the federal courthouse in Raleigh to testify before a grand jury.

Reform is always in the air when political scandals erupt, as politicians rush to convince the public that they are different. And most of them are, though it is a tough sell.

The latest Elon University Poll found that 73 percent of the people in the state think corruption is common among elected officials, though a majority also believe their individual representatives are doing a good job.

The public is right. The majority of politicians are honest and ethical. And now more than ever they must keep pushing for more reforms of a political system that is based on a form of legalized corruption. We expect candidates to rely on the fundraising and big contributions from a handful of special interests and then treat those patrons like everybody else after the election.

The few limits on fundraising have become almost meaningless. An individual or PAC can give up to $4,000 to a candidate’s campaign, but can give unlimited amounts to the Democratic or Republican Party, which can in turn dole out money in $100,000 chunks to individual candidates.

Limiting party contributions is long overdue but faces stiff opposition from party insiders and people like House Minority Leader Paul Stam, who recently said that’s what political parties are for.

It all points to a different way to fund campaigns, with money that comes with no strings attached, no promises to keep. The public gets that.

A survey released recently by Public Policy Polling found that a bipartisan majority believe changing the way campaigns are financed would be a good way to address the pressures that make corruption more likely.

More than half the Republicans and three-fourths of the Democrats surveyed supported giving candidates a public financing option. The voters don’t want their elected officials forced to listen to their big contributors instead of the people they represent.

Public financing won’t solve all the problems, but it will address a lot of them. More measures like Perdue’s announcement this week will help too. Banning registered lobbyists from policymaking or grantmaking boards is a good idea and there are plenty more changes needed.

Good for Governor Perdue. Let’s keep the reform train moving.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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