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Coble, Pope and the conservative approach 

It was good to see, at the first forum for county commissioners candidates in Wake, that ex-Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble hasn't lost his touch.

The question of the evening was whether Coble, doyen of the right-wing Wake Taxpayers Association, would be for or against the $970 million school bond issue. Supporting it would implicate Coble, the Republican candidate in District 7 against Democrat Rodger Koopman, in the four- to five-cent property tax increase the county's projecting should the school bond pass. Could Coble ever support a tax increase?

On the other hand, opposing the bond issue would put Coble at odds with four of the five Republicans who now control the board, including the one he hopes to succeed, Herb Council. Not only that, but two of his three GOP running mates--commissioners' Chair Tony Gurley and Joe Bryan--are actively campaigning for the bond. Only crusty conservative Phil Jeffreys, who's taken the unpopular position that every school in Wake County should be year-round, is against it.

So Coble's choice was to be for the bond with a tax increase, or against it and out in right field with Jeffreys. Are you with me?

Sorry, but if you fell for that one, you just don't understand how an experienced conservative politico operates. (I almost said "thinks.")

Coble endorsed the bond issue straight off. "An excellent way to pay for the schools we need," he declared. But the little brochure he passed around says he's also "committed to funding innovative solutions to IMPROVE OUR SCHOOLS WITHOUT RAISING TAXES." (His caps, not mine.)

Innovative solutions like what? Like the hotel/motel and prepared meals taxes, of course. (If you've been listening to the Coble crowd these many years, you know that, whatever spending is proposed, their preferred method of payment is always hotel and meals taxes.)

Coble delivered his canned line--"Do we need another arena, or do we need schools?"--and was rewarded the next day when The News & Observer repeated it verbatim and unexplicated.

Now remember, the hotel and meals taxes are dedicated--at the General Assembly's insistence--to projects that boost hotels and restaurants. Tourism stuff, in other words. And almost all of our projected hotel and meals taxes through about the year 2030 are already committed to paying for the RBC Center and the new Raleigh Convention Center. Not for another arena, notice, but the arena we just won the Stanley Cup in.

According to the financial data Raleigh used when it financed the convention center, there's maybe $2 million a year in revenue that isn't committed yet, an amount that would perhaps finance $20 million worth of new school construction.

That's $20 million you could raise the Coble way, versus the $970 million debt he's endorsing with the school bond. Only a true conservative can tell you that the one is equal to the other.

Speaking of conservatives, Art Pope has written (see this week's Back Talk) to excoriate me for my "failure to report" that he won, and his Republican nemesis Richard Morgan lost, in their recent case before the state Board of Elections (see Back Talk on page 9). This after I built up the drama with a column headlined "Can a Pope sin?" and a story, "The vanishing voter," that was also, at least in part, about the issues in the case.

Pope attributes this failure to my bias, and while I'd like to say that it's no such thing and I just haven't gotten around to reporting on it again, the fact is that he's more right than wrong. That Pope would win was predictable, once I understood the case. It was also a little bit sad if, like me, you think special interests and the rich have way too much influence over our elections. For both reasons, my interest obviously waned.

But for the record, Pope did win, flat out. Once again, the First Amendment was held to guarantee that rich and poor alike can spend unlimited sums of money communicating their political views. This "free speech" right extends not just to people but to corporations, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is why Variety Wholesalers Inc., the chain of 500 stores owned by the Pope family, is allowed to contribute unlimited sums to nonprofit "527" groups like "Republican Legislative Majority," Art Pope's creation, and why RLM is allowed to carpet-bomb Republican primaries with as much political literature as it can afford.

Morgan maintained that the RLM brochures telling voters to "Call Morgan Out" were patently intended to advocate his election defeat, and thus should've been subject to the rules (i.e., reporting requirements and contribution limits) governing campaign literature. Pope said, on the contrary, that the ads merely used a baseball term to criticize Morgan's record in office, and if you can't criticize an officeholder's voting record, of what possible use is the First Amendment?

As it happens, I agree with Pope. That is what the First Amendment is for. I also agree with the Charlotte Observer, which says the law is "whacko" for not treating the RLM ads as "express advocacy" of Morgan's defeat, but so what if it did? Why shouldn't Pope be allowed to do that, too? When billionaire George Soros was "advocating" George Bush's defeat in 2004 via America Coming Together, another so-called "527" group, we all said hurray.

Morgan attempted to show that Pope coordinated his efforts--RLM's efforts, that is--with the candidates running against him and his moderate Republican allies in the House. But such coordination, absent a tape recording of the conspirators in action, would be tough to prove, and Pope's too smart to do that, anyway.

Anyway, the Board of Elections found Pope innocent on all counts. All I have to add is that if this doesn't show why public campaign financing is needed, to give ordinary folks some clout vis-à-vis the millionaires, I don't know what does.


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