Blue skies

Imagine Waking Up to candidates with progressive ideas

| May 31, 2006

Here's a good idea, from Progressive Democrats of N.C. PAC leader Pete MacDowell. The ProgDems, who hold a "summit" this weekend in the aptly named town of Browns Summit (near Greensboro), want to run a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2008. Not governor. The recently formed band of Progs isn't ready for that, certainly.

But they'll never be ready if they don't start backing candidates--and launching candidates--in the lesser statewide campaigns. And the '08 lieutenant governor's race offers a perfect first chance. It's wide open, especially on the Democratic side, since incumbent Beverly Perdue is running hard for governor. And it's not an office, like state auditor or attorney general, where specific credentials are required. The lieutenant governor has no actual authority except the most important one from a political standpoint, which is that its occupant can command broad public attention if, but only if, she or he has something to say.

So what could a ProgDem candidate propose? Jeez Louise. Could the fruit be hanging any lower? How about an affordable health insurance program for everybody in the state--like the new one in Massachusetts? (Brought to the Bay State by a Republican governor by the way, presidential wannabe Mitt Romney.) How about an energy conservation program--make that a crash energy conservation program--to weatherize houses; power up the wind, solar and biomass alternatives to nuclear and coal; and replace car travel (and $3 gasoline, or will it be more?) with buses, trolleys, trains and that oldest of transit methods, walking paths?

And are we really so proud of raising the state's minimum wage, if indeed that happens, to $6.15 an hour? True, it beats $5.15, which is what more than 100,000 working folks here are paid today. But here's a proposal for a ProgDem candidate, out of Chicago this time. The City Council there is about to require that big-box retailers like Wal-Mart pay their employees a "living wage," which in the Windy City means $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits. The council's bill would apply that standard only to stores of a certain size owned by corporations with $1 billion a year in sales; smaller stores could still pay Illinois' minimum wage of $6.50 an hour. Or how about following Maryland's lead and requiring the big-boxers to at least offer their people a decent health-insurance package?

I could go on. How about tax reform? Or equal rights for the LGBT community? Or--but this is the point of the summit, to hammer out the ProgDems' "organizational, electoral and policy goals."

Of course, you can't run on a dozen issues. You have to choose one, maybe two. I think I'd pick jobs--in the form of the above-mentioned crash energy program. Start with House Bill 2812, the "Energy Future Act of 2006." (Lanya Shapiro, Traction's indomitable leader, is so right--we gotta get better names.) This is the bill that, as described by the Conservation Council of N.C., "would mandate a comprehensive assessment of the potential for energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy development, and their effect on future electric demand in the state."

In other words, do we really need Progress Energy to build more nuclear reactors at Shearon Harris, especially since they're anything but cheap? HB 2812 would make the state's public utilities and the N.C. Utilities Commission--before they bow down to the nuclear genie--show whether we couldn't get more energy bang for our rate-payer bucks if we invested them in conservation and renewables instead.

Come to think of it, HB 2812's sponsor, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, would make a terrific progressive candidate. So good, I'll just leave it at that, and not bother calling to find out that she's not interested. Another good choice: Raleigh's Nina Szlosberg, CCNC's president and the environmental community's representative on the state Board of Transportation. I'm sure she's not interested either. But I can blue-sky it, can't I?

And while I'm on the subject, it's not like the field for governor will be cluttered up with progressive ideas. The leading Democrats, Perdue and state Treasurer Richard Moore, are pro-bidness centrists who occasionally throw a bone to their left. Attorney General Roy Cooper and Orange County Rep. Bill Faison, if they run, can be expected to court the conservatives. And the Republicans? I'm following mom's advice.

So, absent other Democratic candidates--Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker? just a thought--progressive energies will have to be generated in the lieutenant governor's race, if they're to be generated at all.

Why, they're Waking Up!

I think we had a moment there, on Friday, at WakeUp!'s forum on how to pay for growth in Wake County. County commissioners' Chair Tony Gurley, after stating his preference for a sales-tax increase over, say, higher property taxes, impact fees on developers, or a real estate transfer tax, finally agreed with state Sen. Janet Cowell that Wake should be allowed to consider "the full menu of options." And Gurley said he'd use them all if he could.

Gurley, remember, is a Republican. Cowell's a Democrat. But they're agreed that Wake County's experiencing a "growth crisis" (Gurley's term). And they're agreed that for the county's roads, schools, water supplies and other public infrastructure to catch up with its exploding population, tax increases will be needed, and they should be--both said it--"fair."

Well, fair's in the eye of the beholder. But right now, all Wake has at its disposal is higher property taxes, because the General Assembly has not seen fit to let it levy an impact fee, or a transfer tax, or another half-cent sales tax, to pay for the $4 billion to $5 billion in school construction and renovation costs that all agree is needed over the next decade.

And until this year, all that the Republican-led Wake commissioners were lobbying Wake's legislators for was the sales-tax increase, which is easily the most regressive choice of all. (See the N.C. Budget & Tax Center's information, at www.ncjustice.org, if you need proof of this.)

But under pressure from the Democratic candidates for county commissioners, who've been pushing for impact fees, Gurley is now agreeing with Cowell that the General Assembly should pass a bill to let every county choose from the menu of taxing options currently used in any county. Since Mecklenburg has that extra sales tax (for mass transit), and some others, like Orange, have either impact fees, transfer taxes, or both, such a bill would open the door to a balanced financing plan for Wake--which is exactly what it needs.

And we didn't hear it from him at the WakeUp! event--though he was there with Gurley--but according to The News & Observer, Republican commissioner Phil Jeffreys suddenly announced that he, too, thinks the county should have an impact fee for growth.

Now the question becomes, how much? Orange County's, we learned, are between $3,000 and $4,400 per house (depending on where it is), and about half that much for apartments. Chatham County's impact fee is $2,900 per house. Wake's growing at a rate of 12,000 houses a year, so figure $36 million could be had for the schools with a $3,000 fee, to say nothing of fees on other new buildings.

And as Chatham Commissioner Mike Cross said, a 1 percent transfer tax, which he's pushing for his county, would bring Wake another $75 million to $90 million a year if it had one; put that together with an impact fee, use the two to pay off bonded indebtedness, and the entire $1 billion school bond issue now contemplated for Wake could be financed without any property-tax or sales-tax increase at all.

A note on the County commissioners' campaign. Three of the four Democratic candidates are campaigning vigorously. They are: Lindy Brown, Jeffreys' opponent; Donald Mial, who's running against incumbent Joe Bryan; and Rodger Koopman, who's going for an open seat against ex-Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble. But the fourth Democrat, Martha Brock, running against Gurley in the western Wake district, hasn't been able to keep up for reasons of ill health and an inflexible work schedule.

Brock told me she's willing to step aside for another good (and progressive) candidate, and she's been hoping the Wake Democrats would find one. They're looking, I know that much.

Being a county commissioner means endless hours of meetings, most of them in the daytime. If your circumstances permit--as most people's do not--you can throw your hat in the ring by contacting the Wake Democratic party.

Contact Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com.

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