The record breaking special interest election

Guest Commentary

Not too many years ago, Republicans in North Carolina railed against what they described as the “pay-to-play” culture in Raleigh where special interests who gave political leaders big bundles of campaign contributions were rewarded with privileged access and preferential treatment.

That was when the Republicans were in the minority in the General Assembly and having trouble raising as much money as their Democratic opponents.

A new report from Democracy North Carolina finds that not only have the fundraising tables turned, but Republicans seem to be embracing the pay-to-play culture even more than the Democrats they constantly criticized.

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The report finds that Republican legislative leaders are not only raising more money from special interest political action committees than their predecessors, they are also raising a higher percentage of their campaign cash from the PACs than Democrats did.

In fact, they are raising more of their money from special interests than disgraced former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black did in his heyday on Jones St. — and that’s not an easy bar to clear.

The General Assembly passed new ethics and fundraising rules as a result of the scandals that ultimately sent Black to federal prison.

One of the new laws was a ban on lobbyists making contributions to legislators’ campaigns. It’s hard to believe that was ever legal in the first place, that the same people who were asking legislators for votes could also put checks in their hands — but, it was until just a few years ago.

The Democracy NC report finds that the law hasn’t stopped the indirect exchange of money for votes, it just required a rewording of the appeals. The report cites a recent solicitation from the political staff of House Speaker Thom Tillis sent to lobbyists telling them to get their PACs to send a check before an upcoming deadline or at least explain when the money will be sent.

Bob Hall with Democracy NC calls the appeal a “shakedown, plain and ugly,” and notes that the fundraising figures show it appears to be working.

If that’s not enough evidence that we have the best government special interests can buy, consider another report issued this week, this one from the Center for Public Integrity. It finds that out-of-state corporate money is playing a major role in the governor’s race in North Carolina.

The report details how corporations from across the country give hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups like the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association who then run attack ads against candidates in North Carolina.

That leads to the troubling scenario where groups like the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is basically funding attack ads against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton. A spokesperson for the insurance company AFLAC, a big donor to the Republican Governors Association, was unaware that the group’s donation was also being used to attack Dalton on television.

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Maybe even more disturbing still are the large anonymous contributions given to another category of political groups who are not required to disclose who is paying for the ads they run against candidates in North Carolina and elsewhere.

That makes a mockery of the Right’s long opposition to meaningful campaign finance reforms like public financing that would provide funding for candidates without the special interest strings attached.

Their argument used to be that all we needed for a vibrant democracy was full and immediate disclosure of who was funding campaigns.

Now, they seem perfectly comfortable, not only that our elections and our government are for sale to the highest bidders, but that we often can’t even find out who the bidders are — at least until after the election when the legislative bodies meet and starting providing a return on the special interests’ investments.

Record special interest money in pay to play Raleigh, unlimited contributions from Milwaukee helping determine who will be governor in North Carolina and anonymous corporate money deciding who will represent us in Raleigh and Washington.

There’s a lot of ways to describe that system, but democracy is not one of them. : :

— Chris Fitzsimon is the executive director at NC Policy Watch.

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