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A new analysis shows that three dozen of North Carolina’s biggest political action committees (PACs) donated $7 million to state candidates and political parties in the last election – and now many of the groups are scrambling to make sure their interests, including tax breaks worth at least $1 billion a year, are not harmed in the new budget being hammered out in Raleigh.

The list of top PACs includes groups of developers, attorneys, university patrons, doctors, auto dealers, state employees, teachers, and beer wholesalers, as well as executives with blue-chip firms like Progress Energy, Wachovia, Blue Cross, AT&T, and Nationwide Insurance.

The analysis by the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina shows that legislative winners in 2008 received 94 percent of the $5.7 million the big PACs donated to all legislative candidates. The PACs also gave $770,000 to gubernatorial and other statewide candidates, as well as $590,000 to political party committees, much of which gets funneled into legislative races.

On September 16, 2008 the NC Realtors Association PAC sent 106 legislative candidates a total of $169,500 in donations. The same day, the NC Telephone Cooperative’s PAC sent $66,800 to 75 legislators.  The next day, the Blue Cross PAC sent $42,200 to 45 candidates and two weeks later, Bank of America’s PAC gave 84 legislative candidates $118,250. And on and on it went.

But now the budget crisis is forcing elected leaders to make hard choices that affect big donors and pit one powerful lobby against another.

Teachers are holding rallies against cuts in the education budget, and the NC Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association is running full-page ads against proposals to increase the tax on its products. Both groups have PACs that gave more than $100,000 in direct contributions in 2008, plus at least another $100,000 through affiliated groups and individuals.

Click here to read the report, which includes a list of the 36 leading PACs on page 4.

The billboard industry is not one of the 10 biggest spending special-interests groups, like the big banks, utilities, and developers — but it is one of the most persistent.  And the money is not insignificant.

The outdoor advertising industry, as it calls itself, is back in the NC General Assembly this year with a proposal to widen the swath of trees it can cut along public highways so motorists can see their signs.  Similar bills have failed before, but the industry is trying again and recently convinced a state House committee to go along. Conservation groups strongly oppose the bill (H-1583).  For background, see: http://www.newsobserver.com/politics/story/1564419.html.

A new analysis by Democracy North Carolina shows that NC Outdoor Advertising Association’s political action committee (PAC) and industry officials donated more than $160,000 in the past four years (1/2005-12/2008). See our chart at: http://www.democracy-nc.org/moneyresearch/2009/blbdpac.xls

Like many lobby groups, the billboard industry spreads its money around, giving dozens of lawmakers contributions, with the largest amounts reserved for the legislative leadership. For example, on April 30, 2008, the billboard PAC sent checks ranging from $500 to $2,000 to 34 legislators. A week later, it sent checks to 24 more. Altogether, the industry donated to more than 100 legislators and state officials during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

The industry does a good job of remembering its friends and targeting who gets left out.  Democracy North Carolina compared the Outdoor Association PAC’s list of 2008 NC House recipients to how these elected officials voted on the last major piece of legislation promoted by the billboard industry: H-429, a controversial bill that eventually became law and allows billboard companies to recover more money from local governments when their billboards violate new ordinances. Many of the House members who voted on H-429 in 2003 have left the legislature, but of those who ran for re-election in 2008, here’s who the billboard PAC supported or overlooked:

  • Of the 16 current House members who consistently voted against the industry’s bill in 2003, only 2 received an industry PAC donation for their 2008 campaign (the two are Rep. Joe Hackney, who is now Speaker, and Rep. Becky Carney, who now co-chairs the House Transportation Committee; both are crucial gatekeepers for legislation about highway billboards).
  • Of the 33 legislators who received an industry PAC donation in 2008 and who were in the House in 2003, 31 or 94% of the 33 voted with the industry.

This kind of tight correlation is another reason why reformers support providing candidates with an alternative way to finance their campaigns, such as through a Voter-Owned public financing program.

Today’s Charlotte Observer features a story by Jim Morrill on efforts by the friends of former Speaker Jim Black to reduce his prison sentence – see: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/597/story/793368.html

Democracy North Carolina has followed the Black saga closely; in fact, we filed the complaint about illegal contributions in his campaign that triggered the State Board of Election’s investigation and the subsequent federal and state probes.  The scope of his corruption shocked his friends, but more has yet to be told –- which takes us to the missing part of today’s newspaper article:

Jim Black already had a chance to get a shorter prison sentence.  By design, a considerable period of time was set aside between Black’s conviction and his sentencing date, so prosecutors could benefit from his cooperation in their investigation of political corruption.  But Black gave them virtually no help.  In fact, he continued to hide the truth behind self-serving stories that lacked credibility, right through to his tale about the $500,000 “loan” from lobbyist Don Beason.  Consequently, federal and state judges gave him what they considered a fair prison sentence.  If Black wants reduced prison time now, does that mean he’s changed his mind and is ready to tell the truth about what he knows about pay-to-play politics in North Carolina?  It would be highly ironic if he wins shorter time now, not because of the merits of his case, but because of the lobbying clout of well-connected friends.

 In case you’re counting, the runoff election yesterday cost more than $50 per vote cast for election officials to administer — about $4 million to operate about 3,000 polling places and process the results of barely 75,000 votes cast.  In some counties, the cost for the local board of elections easily exceeded $70 per vote.

Local taxpayers foot the bill, not the state, which may be one reason why state lawmakers have been slow to address the problem of expensive, low-turnout runoffs for the partisan nominees for executive branch elections.

One alternative is Instant Runoff Voting, where voters can mark their first choice and a back-up choice on Election Day. Democracy North Carolina has a simple fact sheet about IRV or preference voting on our website, pegged to the pilots run in 2007 in a couple municipal elections:

http://www.democracy-nc.org/improving/IRV.pdf

Opponents of IRV in North Carolina have a habit of spreading fear and wrong information; for example, it’s ludicrous to say that IRV costs more than the runoff system we use now.  There’s got to be a better way than these embarrassing statewide runoff elections – either by filling some the Council of State positions by gubernatorial appointment, nominating others with a different threshold for victory, using IRV, or something else. 

 With less than three weeks before early voting begins, the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina unveiled this week a comprehensive website featuring “Everything you need to register and vote in NC.” The site is accessible through the organization’s website www.democracy-nc.org or directly at www.2008ElectionConnection.com .

I suspect even political junkies couldn’t answer the questions our organizers routinely get in the field. Here's 12 questions to test your knowledge. Scroll to the bottom of the post for the correct answers.

1.  What’s the last day a person can register to vote for the May 6 primary?

2.  Can a 17 year old register and vote in the May primary?

3.  What’s the rule for college students?  Can a student use a campus address to register, rather than a parent’s address or a permanent mailing address?

4.  Is it okay for an organization to pass out registration forms with a pre-marked party affiliation and be careful to only let people who agree with that affiliation use the forms?

5.  If as a first-time voter you are asked to show an ID at the polling place but you don’t have one with you, can you vote and show the ID to the election officials a few days later?

6.  On Election Day, can voters go to any precinct in their county to vote?

7.  An ex-felon can vote if his or her “rights of citizenship have been restored” – what must convicted felons do to restore their citizenship rights?

8.  Is a person serving a jail sentence for a misdemeanor eligible to register and vote?

9.  How many signatures of witnesses are needed for a mail-in absentee ballot to be counted?

10.  Can a person registered as Unaffiliated use an absentee ballot to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary?

11.  What is the latest an absentee ballot can be received at the board of election office and still count?

12.  For the General Election, what’s the youngest age a person can be to serve as a paid poll worker for a local board of elections?

Answers: 

1.  What’s the last day a person can register to vote for the May 6 primary?    Answer: May 3, using Same-Day Registration at the One-Stop Early Voting sites 

2.  Can a 17 year old register and vote in the May primary?    Answer: Yes, if they will be 18 on Nov. 4
 

3.  What’s the rule for college students?  Can a student use a campus address to register, rather than a parent’s address or a permanent mailing address?  Answer: YES
 

4.  Is it okay for an organization to pass out registration forms with a pre-marked party affiliation and be careful to only let people who agree with that affiliation use the forms?  Answer: NO
 

5.  If, as a first-time voter, you are asked to show an ID at the polling place but you don’t have one with you, can you vote and show the ID to the election officials a few days later?   Answer: YES, you can return and show the ID before the canvass date.
 

6.  On Election Day, can voters go to any precinct in their county to vote?  Answer: YES, but only items they are eligible to vote for in their home precinct will be counted.
 

7.  An ex-felon can vote if his or her “rights of citizenship have been restored” – what must convicted felons do to restore their citizenship rights?  Answer: Convicted felons temporarily lose their voting rights. Once they serve all parts of their sentence, including probation or parole, their rights are automatically “restored” and they can register and vote like any other citizen. They do not need a document declaring the restoration of citizenship rights.
 

8.  Is a person serving a jail sentence for a misdemeanor eligible to register and vote?
  Answer: YES.  They can register and vote by mail.
 

9.  How many signatures of witnesses are needed for a mail-in absentee ballot to be counted?  Answer: Two
   
10.  Can a person registered as Unaffiliated use an absentee ballot to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary?  Answer: YES, but they must request the party’s ballot.

  
11.  What is the latest an absentee ballot can be received at the board of election office and still count? 
Answer: 5 pm on the day before Election Day (with this exception: a vote in the presidential race can be counted on a ballot received on Election Day)

 
  12.  For the General Election, what’s the youngest age a person can be to serve as a paid poll worker for a local board of elections?  Answer: 17 years old