Columns » Bob Burtman

Holiday turkeys

It's leftover time in the kitchens of North Carolina, when families attempt to reconfigure the remains of huge holiday meals before they decompose beyond reclamation. In 2005, however, someone forgot to clean out the state's refrigerators, which are brimming with the rotten carcasses of the year's biggest turkeys.

The holidays brings with them the inevitable stories of hardship among the less fortunate, offset by the generosity of those who embrace the spirit of the season. The stage was set this year for a deluge of such tales, as weak-kneed legislators proved incapable of coping with the state's massive social service problems, which include an increasing numbers of families in poverty without health insurance, adequate housing or access to day care, a mental health system in crisis, an epidemic of tainted wells, an overwhelmed court system and other failings.

Some religious and community leaders did step up to the plate. But their efforts were overshadowed by a handful of religious demagogues who decided that the most important battle they could fight in 2005 was not to help those in need, but to demand that retailers greet customers with "Merry Christmas" and not the godless "Happy Holidays." Lest there be any doubt about their true mission, Baptist minister Ron Baity of Winston-Salem told a local TV station that "we're going to reclaim our nation for the cause of Christ." Here in the Triangle, Rev. Patrick Wooden of Raleigh's Upper Room Church of God in Christ spent $11,000 in advertising to urge people to boycott those businesses whose employees did not utter the appropriate phrase, and he promises to continue the crusade in 2006.

Ironically, Wooden and others of his ilk steered devout shoppers to Dillard's, which has a Merry Christmas mandate but has been under fire in recent years for racist policies that allegedly included the use of security guards who profiled black customers as potential thieves, harassing--and in at least six cases, killing--them. Nice to know Wooden has his priorities straight. Merry Christmas, Rev.

Christmas came early at the Department of Transportation, where the old guard successfully deposed dissident deputy secretary Roger Sheats in November and set the clock back several decades. Sheats had upset Senate President Marc Basnight and others by applying consistent environmental standards that were problematic for certain pet projects, even though his work had helped the agency win several prestigious national awards.

About the same time, disintegrating pavement on the newly completed I-40 widening in Durham and Wake counties revealed systemic problems that DOT brooms have been furiously sweeping under the rug ever since. Further instilling confidence that no one will be held accountable for the $40 million mistake, DOT announced that it is investigating itself. Don't be surprised if the investigation reveals the culprit to be Roger Sheats.

Misplaced priorities were the hallmark of the 2005 legislative session as lawmakers sought to avoid any possible act that might be used against them in future elections. Gov. Mike Easley, who coyly sidesteps questions about his transparent political ambitions, showed his moral fiber by denying clemency to wife-killer Elias Syriani, whose children had appealed for mercy on the grounds that they would be victimized twice if their father was executed. So much for the oft-invoked, politically expedient rhetoric about victim's rights.

Elected officials tend to see things differently from normal folks, and most would undoubtedly say (as Easley did) that 2005 was a banner year for progress. That may be true if measured against their re-election chances. Except for conservative Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who dared voice an independent view of the war in Iraq and quickly drew a challenger for next year's primary, two-time election loser Greg Dority. Let the attack ads begin.

Easley did manage to get his precious lottery passed with the help of House Speaker Jim Black and some sleazy calendar maneuvering. This columnist disagrees with the liberal notion that the lottery should have been rejected in the name of protecting poor people from themselves, as under that logic we should ban the purchase of cigarettes, crappy food, video games, useless trinkets and anything else that drains the wallet. But the idea that a lottery will alleviate the state's financial woes or contribute significantly to the education budget has been tested in other states and refuted, and it took only a few weeks for the lottery to become mired in scandals that now threaten Black's career. He's invoking a variation of the Meg Scott Phipps and Frank Ballance defenses (I had no idea what my underlings were doing, and anyway we're just talking about a few paperwork errors), though he may have more success with the Twinkie defense as the story unfolds.

Other than the lottery, Black, Basnight and the other handful of Politburo members generally stayed the course, maintaining their power base and satisfying their wealthy contributors at the expense of taxpayers. Employing the time-honored method of slipping odious special-interest provisions into big budget bills, UNC system lobbyists and their legislative flunkies approved a measure that will allow out-of-state students on full scholarship to pay in-state tuition, a particular boon worth millions to the bloated booster clubs at UNC and NC State. The budget simultaneously slashed $31 million from state college campuses, resulting in cuts to classes, equipment and supplies.

Failed strategies and disproven theories were also on the 2005 legislative menu. Typical were the decisions to throw millions of dollars in incentives at companies considering a move to North Carolina (or threatening to leave without a bribe), mortgaging the state's economic future for short-term gains that, as corporate relocation experts repeatedly note, likely would have been realized anyway. Despite the resistance of state economic developers, citizens did win a limited right to look at public documents on such giveaways--after the fact, of course.

Ever hoping for the illusory quick fix, local governments have been playing their own Mega-Millions games, with even lower odds of winning than the state lottery will offer. Dozens of communities further enabled the state's corporate welfare addiction in 2005, waiving millions in future local tax revenues as incentives to lure companies to one locale or another. In some cases, companies were paid to move from one town in the state to another; the Charlotte City Council approved a $114,975 grant to Ferguson Supply & Box Manufacturing to move from north Charlotte to southwest Charlotte. With local revenues already stretched to the breaking point, the bills for schools, police and fire and other services necessitated by the resultant growth will invariably translate to higher property taxes.

Raleigh's convention center and hotel boondoggle, another high-stakes gamble doomed to failure, continues to move backwards at each reality check. Even though the projected bills for construction, parking, maintenance and related infrastructure escalate by the day, the Raleigh City Council remains hypnotized by the convention center's promise of economic paydirt--despite numerous studies showing that demand for conventions is declining nationally and benefits from the big boxes are routinely overblown. A bleak financial picture has forced Wilmington to the brink of pulling the plug on its convention center; the occupancy rate at Charlotte's hemorrhaging convention center has steadily fallen to around 40 percent.

The prospect of a windfall no matter the source has clouded the thinking of some Eastern North Carolina officials. Cheap land in Scotland, Richmond and Columbus counties has attracted garbage giant Waste Management Inc., which wants to build several huge regional landfills that will take millions of tons of solid waste from East Coast states. Richmond and Scotland counties are competing for a 5,000-ton-per-day dump, even though Waste Management has not revealed the proposed location in either place. Richmond County manager Jim Haynes told The Charlotte Observer that the revenues from the landfill were needed to build a new courthouse and jail complex.

Eastern North Carolina needs help in the form of economic development. But turning it into the nation's fourth largest waste dump will permanently destroy any chance to create a viable future for the region. Now there's a legacy anyone can embrace: polluting industrial hog farms and oozing, putrid landfills. At least there'll be plenty of room to incarcerate criminals. And those stinking turkeys in the fridge will have a place to go if anyone ever bothers to clean them.

Have a turkey you want to tell us about? Contact Burtman at

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