Money machine

Published 7:08 am Tuesday, February 19, 2008

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The News &Observer of Raleigh.)
Once in a while, Bob Hall, executive director of the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, comes up with an apt image for various outrages in the state political arena. This time, it’s a reference to campaign contributions from members of the state Board of Transportation as being rather like ‘‘an ATM machine for the governor and other state politicians.’’ The board is supposed to determine road-building and other priorities for the Department of Transportation to carry out.
It’s a heavy responsibility. Yet appointment to the board too often has seemed little more than a political reward for big-money contributors or fundraisers for governors or other high-ranking state officials who might influence the selection process. (All members are named by the governor, with most representing specific districts.) Although scandals have cropped up showing how board members used their influence to affect road-building priorities and supposed reforms were put in place, the basic connection between board membership and fundraising for politicians remains.
The N&O has noted the political connections of board members in recent stories, following its report that a supporter of Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue had tried to raise money from folks in Roanoke Rapids associated with the ill-fated Randy Parton theater project there. That supporter, Thomas Betts Jr. of Rocky Mount, resigned from the board.
Now Democracy North Carolina reports that a look at the 19 board members as of Jan. 15, plus the secretary of transportation, shows that those 20 people and their immediate families gave more than $1 million in campaign contributions, from 1999 through 2006, to state candidates and parties. Some members likely raised money for candidates from other people, but Democracy North Carolina notes that disclosure reports are incomplete.
Governor Easley was the top beneficiary of the generosity, with his campaign committee getting over $300,000 from the donors for his campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
Democracy North Carolina rightly calls the Board of Transportation the ‘‘closest thing to feudalism we have in N.C.: 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.’’
The board amounts to a throwback to the days when political back-scratching was a normal way of doing business and everyone just sort of winked at the political influence tossed around in the state’s transportation agencies.
Well said, and enough is enough. The board should be further reduced in size (one of several reforms proposed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Orr) and its ‘‘duties’’ should be curtailed. Another candidate for governor, Democratic State Treasurer Richard Moore, also is calling for a crackdown on campaign fundraising by transportation board members. How many more embarrassments must come to light before something is done?