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PAC money flows 

Special interests investing more than ever

This legislative session, real estate agents and homebuilders will fight proposals to authorize impact fees on new development. Utilities companies will stand against a push to require that they use more renewable energy sources. Beer wholesalers will lobby against a new tax. And the legislators who vote on these and other special-interest bills will operate under a cloud of suspicion, this year more than ever.

Since the 2002 election, the top 25 political action committees have nearly doubled their efforts to court North Carolina lawmakers with cash, donating a record $5.1 million to state legislative candidates last year, according to a January report by Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors money in politics.

The N.C. Realtors PAC once again led the charge, contributing more than $615,000 to legislative candidates in 2006, a jump from $235,200 in 2002. Democracy N.C. reports that the PAC gave at least $3,000 to 107 of the state’s 170 legislators.

Other top donors included the political action committees for Citizens for Higher Education, the N.C. Medical Society, the N.C. Homebuilders Association and the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Overall, the report shows that contributions to political parties are also growing rapidly. The top 25 PACs and their national affiliates gave almost a quarter of a million dollars to the state Democratic and Republican parties.

Most legislators emphasize that campaign contributions don’t influence their votes, but all of the money in politics leads to the perception that the General Assembly operates on a pay-to-play system.

“You don’t always know whether the money follows the voting pattern or the voting pattern follows the money,” says Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy N.C. and author of the report.

Hall attributes the big jump in campaign contributions to the ever-increasing cost of running for office.

“It is both the general increase in the cost of campaigns and the competitiveness in races that pushes legislative candidates to get as much as they can,” Hall says. “It’s also the candidates who are not even in competitive races who are raising money to send to the caucuses. And that money is sent to the targeted races.”

Lawmakers agree. “I realized it two campaign cycles ago,” says Rep. Rick Glazier. “The kind of money you have to raise and spend is, in my view, beyond any kind of rational or logical connection.”

Glazier, a Cumberland County Democrat, accepted donations from several of the biggest PACs, including $2,000 from the Citizens for Higher Education, $4,000 from the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers and $2,000 from the Association of Educators. He says neither he nor any other candidate were in a position to turn the money down.

Hall has long argued that public financing, which he helped implement in state-level judicial races, is the only real solution. Glazier is one of several lawmakers who are working with Democracy N.C. to craft public financing legislation this session.

“If we don’t create a public financing option, we don’t have much of a choice,” Glazier says. 

Legislators may get the chance to vote on two public financing bills this year. Glazier will be one of the sponsors of a bill that would set up a fund as an alternative source of campaign financing for candidates in races for the Council of State offices—secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and attorney general, as well as the commissioners of agriculture, labor and insurance. The bill, which has not yet been drafted, will largely resemble the “voter-owned elections” bill proposed in 2005, which never made it out of its senate committee.

Another bill would establish a handful of pilot districts for public financing in legislative races. Alleghany and Surry County Democrat Jim Harrell is working on that legislation. He says he’s had trouble choosing the districts for the bill because lawmakers are wary of financing the campaign of an opponent or someone across the aisle. “It has not been received widely by all because of the fear of the unknown,” Harrell says.

But Glazier says he’ll be first in line. “I would be very much in favor in having my district be one of those pilots,” he says.

“For a campaign to spend $250,000 for a seat that pays $14,000 doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Glazier says.

Top Five Giving PACs 2006 Election 2002 Election
N.C. Realtors $615,715 $235,200
Citizens for Higher Education $425,000 $149,000
N.C. Medical Society State & Federal $377,973 $135,050
N.C. Home Builders Association $284,350 $210,950
N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers $276,500 <$130,500

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