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No Land for Tomorrow? 

Any development officer worth their salt will tell you that it's a lot easier to get somebody to donate money for a building than an idea. And when it comes to doling out your tax dollars, there is a similar phenomenon at work. (Someone cleverer than I once called it an edifice complex.)

This unfortunate obsession with concrete may have put the brakes on Land for Tomorrow--one of the biggest conservation pushes North Carolina has seen in years. Last week, as the budget negotiations dragged on, negotiations on proposed bonds and other indebtedness heated up. In the scramble for cash that ensued, supporters of the $1 billion bond program to protect key lands throughout the state were left empty-handed and a little stunned.

The project, backed by a who's who of "ambassadors" and pushed by a massive coalition of more than 228 groups representing conservation, farmland, clean-water, rural preservation and natural heritage interests, had a solid head of steam heading into the session. About half of the Senate and two-thirds of the House have signed up to co-sponsor the legislation.

But Gov. Mike Easley said this was not the year to pile on debt and agreed to support funding only for a list that included a new crime lab, expansion of the N.C. Museum of Art and a handful of public health and safety projects. Midweek, Sen. Tony Rand (D-Bladen) signaled that he and the Senate leadership agreed with the governor. That left only the House solidly behind Land for Tomorrow. House finance chair Paul Luebke (D-Durham) said it was clear after that it was time to start thinking about next year. "It takes at least two out of the three," he said.

The Land for Tomorrow program, which would require approval by voters through a bond referendum, would parcel out $200 million a year over five years to preserve "the goodliest land." Money would have also gone to keeping family farms, preserving rural heritage, green economic development and other programs that you may not think of when you hear the word "conservation."

Crawford Crenshaw, chair of the Land for Tomorrow's steering committee, said it was disappointing to see something with so much legislative support lose out.

Luebke said the best thing backers of Land for Tomorrow can do is to make sure members of the General Assembly hear about it, especially between now and November. "You got to build support among legislators," he said. You can start at www.landfortomorrow.org.

Morton honored

One thing both houses managed to do smoothly last week was pay tribute to the late Hugh Morton, who was laid to rest last month after a ceremony in Greensboro broadcast on statewide public television. With his wife, Julia, and family present in the gallery, the praise was heartfelt and filled with tales of Morton's efforts to preserve the natural heritage of the state as he captured its beauty on film. It was evident, though, that try as he might have to preserve the mountain skies, Morton--like the state--fought a losing battle.

In his comments, House Speaker Jim Black noted that in his office is one of his prized possessions--a view of the Charlotte skyline Morton shot from Grandfather Mountain, some 50 miles away. It is a view, he noted quietly, that is no longer possible.

Newt makes the rounds

Newt Gingrich and Fred Smith--it's a wonder any other egos could fit in the room. But a good many squeezed in a banquet hall at the North Raleigh Hilton to see Gingrich, who is gauging a run for president, keynoting a fund-raiser for state Sen. Smith of Clayton, who is gauging a run for governor.

Newt's been telegraphing a run for a while. Similarly so for Smith, as anyone who has driven U.S. 70 from Raleigh to New Bern lately can tell you. Smith, who ran unopposed in 2004, has leased out a couple of those nice, new, well-lit billboards and plastered them with his likeness. They're likely to beam down on travelers for a good while. His campaign committee listed a total of $456,617 cash on hand as of its last report. And that was before the Newtron fund-raiser.

And while the rest of the North Carolina Republican House delegation was busy supporting a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Patrick McHenry to allow oil and gas exploration off the North Carolina coast, McHenry was hanging with Newt at the Conover home of veteran GOP hosts Leroy and Lynn Lail--he of the UNC Board of Governors, she of the Catawba County Board of Commissioners. Mrs. Lail told the Hickory Daily Record she expected 75 to 100 guests. McHenry's spokesperson explained his absence at the vote, which if passed by the Senate would lift a 25-year ban on drilling off the Carolina coast, by saying he was "traveling in the district" and would have voted for it had he not been otherwise occupied.

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