Efforts to merge and cut funding for three agencies responsible for oversight of ethics, campaign finance and lobbying activities in state government are one step closer to becoming reality.
Lawmakers are pushing to combine the State Board of Elections, the State Ethics Commission and the division of the Secretary of State's office that monitors the lobbyists' spending into a new body known as the State Board of Elections and Ethics. This agency would be created by January and would be under the control of General Assembly leaders.
The proposed merger is a part of the Senate's proposed budget and would cut more than $1.4 million and 20 positions, 15 of which are currently filled. Of the new Board's nine positions, six would be elected by legislators.
The proposal, also a part of the House budget, has attracted criticism. The merger would hurt not only the agencies, but would be a major blow to transparency in state government, warns Democracy North Carolina, a non-partisan watchdog group.
“The way this merger is being pushed so rapidly, crammed inside a budget bill without a thorough study, is completely irresponsible and highly suspicious," said executive director Bob Hall, in a prepared statement. "You have to wonder if the Republicans are trying to cripple these agencies and throw them into a state of confusion during the upcoming election.”
The group found that among the 960 financial disclosure forms from the winning 2010 legislative candidates, 42 percent of have yet to be entered in the State Board of Election's online database for auditing. Cutting the agency's resources would likely set their record keeping even further behind, reducing the public's access to these records, which many consider vital for maintaing an open government.
Earlier this month, a Republican majority shot down an amendment proposed by House Democrats to kill the plan. The inclusion of the merger in the Senate budget makes it closer than ever to becoming a reality.
Should the cuts go into effect, the job of handling the registration and following the money of the state's nearly 800 lobbyists would be handled by a staff of three.
This comes at a time when recent ethics violation in the state are fresh in the minds of the public and the upcoming 2012 elections promise to present even more opportunities to track PAC money and spending from corporations and unions.