Special interests

Published 11:30 am Saturday, July 19, 2008

By Staff
and special treatment
One of the documents available in the education-resources section on the Web site of the North Carolina General Assembly is called “how an idea becomes a law.”
It explains how bills are introduced, how the committee process works, that each chamber must pass legislation and it must be signed by the governor before it becomes law. The House Clerk’s has a paper version of the explanation, complete with graphics and cartoon characters presumably to make the lesson more appealing to kids.
The reality of the legislative process is much different and includes factors not part of the educational resources, most notably lobbyists and campaign contributions, and the access and influence they both guarantee.
As the legislative session careens toward adjournment, floor sessions convene and repeatedly recess, committees meet around lawmakers’ desks, and bills appear out of nowhere, making it almost impossible for most legislative observers to have much of an idea what is happening.
Well-connected lobbyists can usually manage to keep up though, especially ones representing interests that also get the attention of leading lawmakers by making hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
That’s one reason why people that care about the coast of North Carolina remain worried about an effort by a group of wealthy homeowners on swanky Figure Eight Island to convince lawmakers to let them build an underwater sea wall to maintain the beach in front of their mansions.
The homes on the northern edge of the island are threatened by the shifting beach sands but state law prohibits sea walls because they increase erosion down the coastline.
But the folks on the private, gated island just north of Wrightsville Beach are among the wealthiest and most well-connected in the state, and they are doing what wealthy interests do when they want something from state government.
They formed a political action committee and hired influential lobbyists, including former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker and Republican political operative Peter Hans, who is also the vice chair of the UNC Board of Governors, one of the most exclusive clubs in the state whose members are elected by the General Assembly.
Earlier this year, prominent Democratic fundraiser Lanny Wilson entertained members of the 21st Century Transportation Committee at his Figure Eight home, providing another chance for discussion of the sea-wall exemption, though Davis already has plenty of access to politicians, considering that he has given more than $175,000 to political campaigns since 1999 and raised untold thousands more.
The Figure Eight Homeowners PAC has given close to $50,000 to legislative candidates in the last three years, including $12,000 to Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.
Democracy North Carolina reports that the 150 donors to the homeowners PAC have also made individual contributions to Basnight’s campaign that total $180,000 in the last three election cycles. Thousands more have gone to other members of the General Assembly and the strategy seems to have paid off — almost.
The Senate approved the sea-wall exemption last year and its fate now rests with the House as the session winds down. House leaders were initially not thrilled with the proposal, but reportedly they are now considering a compromise plan that asks the Coastal Resources Commission to consider the plea to carve out an exemption in state law.
But the sea-wall ban works and doesn’t need to be changed or weakened. If House leaders cave into the money and influence and high-powered lobbyists, the mansions will be protected and the beach will disappear from in front of property owned by people without lobbyists and political action committees.
If it’s successful, the push by the Figure Eight special interests for special treatment could be a case study in the way General Assembly too often operates, bowing to the powerful, well-connected few. Maybe this will be an exception to that disturbing rule. Either way, it’s time to update the educational materials for kids about how an idea becomes a law.