On the eve of tomorrow’s General Assembly session, you’d like to see your legislators in meetings with their constituents, discussing their concerns about what state government should do. Well, that’s not exactly what you get in today’s General Assembly, where many seats cost more than $250,000 to win and money is always on the mind. Tonight, the NC Republican House Caucus will hold a gala fundraiser at the Cardinal Club with tickets from $150 to $10,000. Because of ethics rules, lobbyists are not allowed to contribute to a legislator’s campaign committees, but they can give to party organizations. The invitation to tonight’s event makes it plain: “Lobbyists registered in North Carolina are not prohibited from contributing to the NC Republican House Caucus.” The underlying message is also clear: Pay up if you want to be a serious player in the session this year. Other caucuses are doing the same, and have long done so, from both parties.
The caucus accounts within the political parties allow legislative leaders to suck in special-interest money all year long and also develop solidarity and discipline among legislators. Each caucus member is expected to donate something from their campaign, and chairs of major committees are expected to put in more, if they want to keep their positions. The millions in the caucus fund then gets spent in several hotly contested races that help the members keep or retake their majority status and power. As the Democracy NC chart shows, the caucus money system was perfected by Senate Democrats Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, but in their first effort as the incumbent majority, the GOP House and Senate caucuses have broken all records for the amounts of money pulled in and then spent on target races. An article in today’s Charlotte Observer helps explains how the system works.