03/28/05 — Let them take turns: Legislative leaders have too much power

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Let them take turns: Legislative leaders have too much power

The North Carolina Legislature could save the state a heap of money just by getting new leadership. New leaders wouldn’t have the muscle to get so many of their pet projects approved.

The leaders in office now are fine people, and they certainly are effective at getting things done for their districts. But over the years, they have built up a lot of influence. Too often, they are tempted to trade some of it to their colleagues in exchange for votes on pet projects or issues.

The leadership positions — president pro tempore of the Senate and speaker of the House — should be rotated at intervals to avert the building of fiefdoms.

We have seen this time and again: Someone would get hold of power and cling with white-knuckled intensity. Usually, in the end, it would cost the taxpayers a bundle.

Most famously, it was the late Liston Ramsey, Democrat from Madison County. He was elected speaker of the House four consecutive times in the 1980s until finally he was overthrown by a coalition of frustrated Republicans and Democrats. While in command, he was able to strong-arm lawmakers to vote his way in return for favors, such as choice committee assignments and appointments to state boards and commissions. He especially liked to wield authority over the budget.

Now we have Marc Basnight, Dare County Democrat and Senate president pro tem, getting a bill through the Legislature that would give Currituck County 300 acres of state land worth $1 million. Currituck is in his district.

And we have Mecklenburg County Rep. Jim Black, the House speaker, trying to give Johnson and Wales University a state-owned building worth $5 million in downtown Charlotte. Charlotte is in his district.

The Legislature approved Basnight’s land deal last year, but Gov. Mike Easley stopped it on the grounds that the bill was too vague. The county wants to use the land, which is at the county’s airport, for an industrial park.

Now the lawmakers have passed a refined bill. The vote was unanimous in the Senate, so a veto will probably be overridden, but Easley has decided to try one anyhow.

Black says he and Basnight promised to give the Charlotte building to Johnson and Wales as an incentive to get the culinary school to move there, creating jobs.

That statement pretty well illustrates the kind of arrogance we are dealing with. Two men took it upon themselves to give away millions in state property to recruit a business. And the Commerce Department, whose job it is to recruit business, was never even consulted. Nor was the governor. Nor was the Legislature.

Just two powerful men.

Add all this to the $10 million that was stashed in last year’s budget for Basnight to control. Add it to $5 million each that was put there for Black and former Republican co-speaker Richard Morgan of Moore to hand out. And add it to who-knows-how-much more of our money these leaders have directed to pet projects or political buddies.

And what you get is millions of good reasons for making frequent changes in who controls the state’s purse strings.

Published in Editorials on March 28, 2005 10:28 AM