The newspaper set out to land a Democratic shark. And landed a Republican whale instead.
The roots of the News and Observer story run back 26 years – to when Jim Martin was Governor. Back then the Democrats in the legislature decided, instead of letting Martin pass out what’s euphemistically called ‘Economic Development Grants,’ they’d set up their own independent group and pass them out themselves. That gave birth to The Rural Center. Which ripened into a classic ‘good ole boy’ network that worked (for the politicians) like a charm:
* Democratic Legislators gave Billy Ray Hall – their choice to head The Rural Center – money.
* Legislators then ‘suggested’ who Hall give grants to.
* Then Hall trooped back to the legislature to ask for more money.
Legislators liked it so well they kept right on doing it after Jim Hunt was elected, and they set up more ‘good ole boy’ funds with high-sounding names like The Golden Leaf Foundation and The Clean Water Management Trust Funds.
It all rolled along fine for over two decades then two misfortunes occurred: Republicans took control of the legislature. And Billy Ray Hall landed on the front page of the News and Observer – alongside a picture of, of all people on earth, Art Pope.
After years of opposing pork barrel giveaways Art probably never dreamed he’d open the newspaper one morning and see his picture sitting beside headlines reading: “Spending in the Shadows” – “Politicians, powerful touch NC Rural Center cash” – and “Pope acknowledged his company may have been indirectly helped.”
My suspicion is Art got famoozled or just plain ambushed, but, anyway, his cutting (as Governor McCrory’s budget director) Billy Ray Hall’s funding by 60% is pretty good proof he isn’t lusting after state money.
That said, Art’s also the one Republican Democrats love to hate so the Democrats are going to holler bloody murder.
On the other hand, the News and Observer just handed Republicans a gift: A golden opportunity to drive a spike through the heart of ‘good ole boy’ politics and pork barrel spending.
For years Billy Ray Hall’s had an unusually happy job: He gives away money. Which is almost a sure fire way to make friends – and being no fool Billy Ray long ago figured that out. Over the years he’s given tens of millions of dollars in grants at the request of Lt. Governors, State Senators, State Senators and State Representatives.
The News & Observer told a story about one grant: A State Senator asked Hall to give a $300,000 grant to help a business in his district. Billy Ray waived a few rules and awarded the grant. And the Senator raised $6,500 from partners in the business for his campaign.
Hall’s Rural Center has also poured millions into companies that don’t seem to need help at all – like Wendy’s, Kohl’s, Krispy Kreme, Bojangles’ and Walmart (which benefited from $6 million in state subsidies). And funded grants to help a golf course near Southern Pines and a video sweepstakes company in Greenville – all dressed up in a figure-leaf of effusive love for rural North Carolina, or as Hall opined to the News and Observer, “I eat, sleep, and breathe rural North Carolina.”
It’s all ‘good ole boy’ pork barreling at its most glorious but there’s one problem: Letting legislators pick who gets state money probably isn’t the best way to create jobs.
Right now, Billy Ray Hall’s sitting on $69 million in unspent state cash in the Rural Center’s bank account. So what happens next matters.
In the Governor’s budget, Art Pope proposed cutting The Rural Center’s funding 60% this year – giving Hall another $6.6 million.
The State House went in the opposite direction – instead of cutting, it increased Hall’s funding – giving him another $36 million over two years.
The Senate cut Hall’s funding to zero. And didn’t give him another penny.
Which bring us back to the N&O’s gift: The problem here isn’t Billy Ray Hall or just Billy Ray Hall, it’s ‘good ole boy’ politics and legislators setting up pork barrel funds with high sounding names to dole out state money.
Some Republicans are naturally sort of intrigued by the idea of turning those ‘good ole boy’ Democratic funds into ‘good ole boy’ Republican funds. But this is no time to succumb to temptation. Instead Republicans ought to shut ‘em down and deal ‘good ole boy’ politics a lethal blow.
They can start with The Rural Center.