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N.C. Opinions: Raleigh

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Make legislators cool off before returning to lobby

From an editorial in the (Raleigh) News & Observer on Feb. 4:

More than half of the members of the General Assembly are in their first or second terms, so it’s good they’ll be guided by two old legislative hands, Harold Brubaker and Richard Stevens.

Brubaker, 66, a former Republican House speaker, has 35 years experience in the lower chamber, and Stevens, 64, a Cary Republican, is a 10-year veteran of the Senate. Both men became experts in state spending by heading budget committees.

But what’s this? These two fixtures aren’t legislators anymore? They quit the General Assembly last year and will be back this session as lobbyists?

Maybe we shouldn’t be grateful for their guidance after all. What we should be is worried about it. Top legislators-turned-hired-guns advising lawmakers sounds like an opening for well-funded interests to buy influence. It’s time to slow down the revolving door through which legislators return as lobbyists.

An ethics law passed in 2005 requires a six-month delay or “cooling-off period” before a lawmaker can lobby his former colleagues. Former Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Wake County Democrat who sponsored the bill, wanted a one-year cooling-off period, but six months was all she could get through. By leaving office early, Brubaker in July and Stevens in September, the former lawmakers are now in a position to serve one session and lobby in the next.

Both men acted within the law, but in doing so they made the case for a better one. The cooling-off period should be at least a year. Thirty-five states restrict legislators from immediately returning as lobbyists. Those cooling-off periods range from one to two years. Former members of the U.S. House must wait a year to lobby. Members of the U.S. Senate must wait two years.

Six months is just too brief a time for political grease to cool. And the prospect of a quick lobbying payday can influence which special interests legislators listen to before they leave office.

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