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Charlotte light rail.jpgThere are too many details to be fleshed out and examined to provide a definitive assessment of Governor McCrory’s new proposed state transportation plan that he unveiled yesterday.  For instance, the summary talks about expanding mass transit and building new light rail — both encouraging signs — but it’s too early to say whether these ideas are just polite nods in that direction or real signals of an intention to move away from paving the entire state, one new interstate lane at a time.

One thing that can be said for certain at first blush however is this: It’s encouraging to see the Governor talking optimistically about public investments for the common good. After almost nothing but right-wing bluster about slashing public structures (and the spending that supports them) in education, health care, environmental protection and several other important areas, it’s nice to hear the McCrroy administration at least admitting that public institutions and new investments have an important role to play in the state’s future.

Of course, the idea of investing in roads has always been the one area in which most conservatives have made an exception to their rules about the supposed evils of government.  So, it seems quite possible that the new DOT plan could just be a brief interlude in the ongoing assault on all things public. We’ll know more in the days ahead as the plan gets spelled out in more detail, but until then, we’ll try to maintain a little hope that, with the General Assembly out of town and Art Pope out of the budget office, McCrory has, at least temporarily, morphed back into his civic-boosting mayoral persona of old.

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Taxpayers spent more than $80,000 swapping out cubicles in the state transportation department last spring, just a few weeks after Gov. Pat McCrory called on agency leaders to tighten their fiscal belts.

The $82,996.36 cubicle renovation project for 23 work stations approved last May dropped the height of  most of the cubicles by 10 inches, and created more of a “newsroom” atmosphere for communications staff to work in, according to purchase records and Mike Charbonneau,  DOT’s communications director.

“This has been a big help for us,” Charbonneu said, saying that the previous cubicles were mismatched in size, with a handful reaching to the ceiling, creating a confusing maze of hallways and workspace in the agency’s headquarters across from the State Capitol.

New cubicles at DOT cost $80,000, when state was watching budgets

New cubicles at DOT cost $80,000, when state was watching budgets

The May request for shorter cubicles was made by then-communications director Cris Mulder, who left the agency late last year for a job outside state government, and was approved by DOT Secretary Tony Tata.

“This project will renovate the existing communications space on the first floor to make more efficient use of the multiple work areas and support the strategic departmental goals for integrated, transparent and collaborative communications,” Mulder wrote in a May 22 memorandum for the project obtained through public records request.

But the plea for new communications staff cubicles came just a few weeks over McCrory issued a March memorandum instructing cabinet secretaries to forgo unnecessary spending in order to cover an expected $262 million shortfall in the state’s Medicaid program.

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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