We have to hand it to former state Rep. Drew Saunders, D-Mecklenburg. Although he has resigned from the state House, he is a veritable model of what legislative ethics reform ought to be all about.
By resigning his House seat two months early after losing the Democratic nomination in the primary earlier this year, and accepting a $110,000 per year job at a non-profit group representing municipal power agencies, Saunders has made the case for a longer cooling-off period before legislators can take jobs as lobbyists.
While in the General Assembly, Saunders was chairman of the House Utilities Committee, which handles legislation regulating power companies. By taking a job at Electricities, whose duties often include lobbying for the interests of municipal power companies, Saunders has engaged in precisely the sort of conduct that reformers were worried about two years ago. That year, they pushed for a year-long cooling-off period before legislators can jump from making laws to becoming lobbyists and using their influence and insider contacts to lobby for legislation benefitting special interests.
Here's the kicker: It was Saunders who, in July 2006, successfully pushed to shorten the proposed cooling off period from a one-year interregnum to just six months. In a speech widely reported by newspapers, Saunders argued on the House floor that a new ethics bill “treats legislators like dirt.”
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No, it didn't. It treated legislators like human beings who are subject to the same economic pressures and the same temptations that affect everyone. But it drew a distinction, recognizing that legislators can do special interests favors, and that special interests can do legislators favors. And it recognized that legislators should not be able to move quickly and fluidly from law makers to lobbyists. Because of the six-month reduction he backed two years ago, Saunders could lobby the legislature as early as May, rather than waiting until late 2009.
Saunders says he did not anticipate the offer from Electricities when he pushed the proposal, and we take him at his word. But that's not the point.
The point is that the public is entitled to a presumption that its public officials will not blithely become legislative lobbyists with no concern for apparent conflicts of interests. Otherwise, it appears that special interests in need of a lobbyist can simply hire a legislator to quit and then get legislation passed, killed or changed. If a legislator in the 2008 session can be hired to lobby the 2009 session, the public is entitled to wonder whose log got rolled in which direction.
Saunders seems not to recognize that the public might have good questions about legislative ethics. After all, it was he who objected in 2006 to tighter restrictions on gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists, famously saying, “Even the Baby Jesus accepted gifts, and I don't think it corrupted him.”
He's right. It didn't. But the public likely would trust Jesus to do the right thing if He were a legislator. Lesser mortals need to cool it for a year. Legislators should remember that when they return to Raleigh in January – and fix this inadequate law.