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A marriage within government that deserves our blessing

RALEIGH — Over the past decade, the state Board of Elections has investigated two Democratic governors and a Democratic state House speaker.

State Republican Party officials say the board only undertook one of those investigations — into the campaign air flights of current Gov. Beverly Perdue — while kicking and screaming.

They see the board as partisan.

Maybe so.

The majority on the five-member board is always determined by the party affiliation of the governor. For the past 18 years, three members have been Democrats and two have been Republicans. Prior to that, during the eight years that Jim Martin was governor, the 3-2 divide was reversed, with Republicans making up the majority.

Regardless of the board’s makeup, the investigations into the campaign finances of former Gov. Mike Easley and former House Speaker Jim Black laid the foundations for the eventual criminal prosecutions of both.

The new Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly, nevertheless, wants changes to the board, its staff, its responsibilities.

In the House, both the $19 billion proposed state spending plan and a separate bill filed by Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, would remove the campaign finance responsibilities from the board and hand them to the North Carolina State Ethics Commission.

A dozen election board staff members responsible for tracking the campaign finance-related matters of political candidates would be moved to the ethics commission, which currently oversees conflict of interest rules for appointed and elected state officials. The legislation would also move lobbying registration functions and three employees from the secretary of state’s office to the ethics commission.

The proposed changes would leave the State Board of Elections overseeing elections and voter registration, but with no oversight of campaign finance.

A bill in the Senate, filed by Sen. Andrew Brock, takes a different approach. It would essentially merge the SBE and the ethics commission, combining their functions and staffs.

Lewis’ bill doesn’t make much sense. Elections and voter registration can’t, and shouldn’t, be untangled from campaign finance. Local boards of election would still be left dealing with all three matters, but overseen by two separate entities.

Lewis seems to be trying to split the baby, then gluing it onto another baby.

Brock’s bill, on the other hand, would bring together two babies that are very much related.

Since state legislators approved conflict of interest laws and tougher lobbying restrictions, the ethics commission has been in charge of ensuring that legislators and other state officials don’t let their personal business overlap with their public business. Sometimes those overlaps can involve political campaigns.

Done properly, so that plenty of sun shines on its activities and so that any potential wrongdoing is aggressively investigated, a combined ethics commission and SBE could be more efficient and effective.

Isn’t that what government consolidation is supposed to be about?

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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