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The watchdogs at Democracy NC released the following sad but not surprising report earlier this morning:

For Release Tuesday, February 28, 2012 — Contact: Bob Hall, 919-489-1931

Amended Report from Speaker Thom Tillis Reveals Large Donations from Industry He Helped

A revised campaign disclosure report filed by House Speaker Thom Tillis earlier this month reveals that he received more than $20,000 last October from a special-interest group whose priority legislation he pushed through the House despite stiff opposition from consumer advocates and the United States military. Read More

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For us folks in Wilmington, the tug-o-war over construction of a functional convention center has been putting people to sleep for years while those attending events with more than a few dozen others at the current facility spend useless minutes, gas, and patience trying to park and dodge comunity college students.

We were suddenly awakened a few weeks ago when Wilmington city officials worked through a pending law suit, political fallout, and general malaise to inform us that yes, Wilmington was going to break ground on a new convention center after over a decade of discussion, pricey hired consultants, and general empty rhetoric. 

That's the good news.  The bad news is that city chose Raleigh based builder J.M. Thompson to complete the project; this the same outfit that went over budget $1,000,000 on the recently completed New Hanover County jail, charged the county thousands to rent basic equipment such as copiers and computers, and took twice as long to complete the job as scheduled.  Seems to me to be a bit boneheaded to hire an out of town builder that has a poor track record in your area, especially when a local builder was hired to help complete their last disaster.

As stated in the Wilmington Star-News, our city manager (hired after the previous manager was fired in a male ego hissyfit orchestrated by a former mayor) cited the decades of time that Thompson had been in business as an indication that they would perform well with the convention center contract.  I guess he's never been to jail, or the new jail, anyway.

Wilmington needs a space for professionals to gather, and let's just hope that this choice doesn't make the process take even longer and cost even more. It seems our town is getting a statewide reputation for bad municipal decisions, unethical elected officials, non-existent attention to infrastructure, and development influenced government.  If we're not careful, Myrtle Beach may come a lot closer than an hour away.

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 Following up news stories about the political influence of appointees to the NC Board of Transportation, here are few facts and observations from Democracy North Carolina, the election watchdog organization based in Durham:

  • Campaign reports reveal how the Board acts like an ATM machine for the governor and other state politicians.  Looking at the DOT secretary and the 19 Board members on January 15, 2008 (before Thomas Betts’ resignation), Democracy North Carolina found that these individuals and their immediate families donated more than $1 million in campaign contributions to state candidates and parties from 1999 through 2006.  (Because of incomplete disclosure reports, it is impossible to tell how much money the members raised for candidates.)
  • The $1 million-plus amounts to $50,000 in campaign contributions from each of the 20 families represented on the Board of Transportation.

  • The top recipient of all this money is Gov. Michael Easley, whose campaign committee received $320,000 from these donors for his 2000 and 2004 elections.

  • Other major recipients during this period (1999-2006) include State Senate President Pro Temp Marc Basnight ($113,300), Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue ($94,400), Attorney General Roy Cooper ($67,700), and Treasurer Richard Moore ($38,150).  Donations continue to flow at a rapid pace, as new reports for 2007 activity demonstrate.

  • The Board of Transportation is the closest thing to feudalism we have in NC:  Big pots of money are essentially sent to the king (governor or governor-to-be) and the appointee-lords get enormous authority over their respective territories.
  • A report by Democracy North Carolina when Easley named his first Board of Transportation in 2001 found that of his 14 original appointments to the 14 district seats, 9 of them (64%) were related to the families who ranked as the first, second or third top donor-families in each of those districts to Easley’s 2000 campaign. See http://www.democracy-nc.org/moneyresearch/2008/BOTsumm.pdf
  • Many Board members have distinguished records of public service, but the close connection between political donations and appointments creates an appearance of favoritism and taints their good works in the eyes of a suspicious public.  

  • As recommended a decade ago during the last scandal, we need transportation reforms that reduce the power of Board members over DOT policy/projects AND we need campaign finance reforms that reduce the power of major donors in political campaigns.  Disclosure and bans won’t do the job.  For example, the proposal to bar large donors and fundraisers from serving as Board members has little chance of success without a corresponding carrot – i.e., an incentive for candidates to not depend so heavily on big donors because they have a public financing alternative. 
  • A few other reports about the Board of Transportation scandals in the late 1990s are available by looking at the October and November 1997 reports on the list of reports at: http://www.democracy-nc.org/Research.shtml