When North Carolina’s legislators met last summer, Tom Apodaca was the powerful Senate Rules Committee chairman. Now, as legislators embark on this year’s session, Apodaca is still chatting with legislators – but now he’s doing it as a lobbyist representing Blue Cross Blue Shield, Raleigh’s Rex Hospital, the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association and others.
Former House Majority Leader Mike Hager is doing the same thing. He stepped down as a legislator in August and will now lobby his former colleagues to help his clients on deregulation, public utility issues and other areas.
Apodaca and Hager follow the example of dozens of legislators before them who cashed in on their public service by almost immediately switching from serving with legislators to hitting them up for friendly treatment of their private clients.
N.C. legislators used to flip from being lawmakers one day to being lobbyists the next. After an ethics scandal involving then-House Speaker Jim Black, they passed a law instituting a 6-month “cooling off period.” It provides for little cooling off, though, as we see with Apodaca and Hager. It barely covers the time from one session to the next.
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That’s why legislation from Rep. Scott Stone, a Mecklenburg Republican, is welcome. House Bill 48 would extend the waiting period for legislators to become lobbyists from six months to a year. Two years – the length of the cooling-off period in about a dozen states – would be better, but Stone’s proposal would at least be an improvement. About 35 states have a longer cooling-off period than North Carolina’s.
The so-called revolving door – which actually goes one way more than it revolves – contributes to the perception that special interests, not regular citizens, control government. Legislators can make public policy decisions with lucrative future employment in mind. And former legislators, still cozy with their former colleagues, can persuade those colleagues to take actions worth millions of dollars to their clients. It is those cozy relationships, after all, that make them attractive lobbyists in the first place.
Stone’s proposal won’t erase the problem, of course. Former public officials will still make the switch. And some states have loopholes in which legislators join lobbying firms but comply with the law by hiring lobbyists to do their work rather than registering as lobbyists themselves.
Still, most anything that strengthens North Carolina’s weak government ethics laws is worthwhile. Stone’s bill has 41 co-sponsors, from both parties. Legislative leadership should give it a hearing, and give regular folks a little more hope that legislators are on their side.