When Gov. Pat McCrory appointed millionaire conservative Art Pope as state deputy budget director early last year, Pope agreed to accept an annual salary of $1.
This was not a chivalrous demonstration of his frugality and commitment to the state's financial health; it was a charade.
In 2011 and 2012, Pope and his affiliates had pumped $2 million into key races to help the Republican Party capture the General Assembly for the first time in 100 years. And with those victories, aided by gerrymandering that favored the GOP, came the Republican agenda that Pope had championed all along.
So now that Pope has resigned—allowing him to openly fund political campaigns without running afoul of ethical rules—let's reflect on what North Carolina got for its dollar.
THE STATE BUDGET
Given that Pope runs a multimillion-dollar enterprise of discount stores, North Carolina should be in better financial shape. But tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations did not stimulate the state economy as conservatives' claimed. After a year of magical thinking, lawmakers—also to blame for the financial mess—discovered the state's revenues were still short $445 million. That's equivalent to about 200 million Chinese-made tchotchkes filling the shelves of one of Pope's discount stores.
VOTER SUPPRESSION LAWS
Over the past five years, Pope's think tanks Civitas and the John Locke Foundation (they are funded by the Pope Foundation) have published 50 articles, op-eds and blog posts "warning of voter fraud and using the alleged threat to call for a strict photo ID law, an end to same-day registration, and a shorter early voting period," according to the Institute for Southern Studies. Voila! The Republican-led, Pope-purchased General Assembly passed legislation with those restrictions.
The Pope Foundation has provided more than $500,000 in funding for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy to pump out criticism of North Carolina's public universities. Before Pope became deputy budget director, he served on a UNC advisory committee about the future of the university system. Then when he ascended to state deputy budget director, $65 million was cut from the UNC system budget in 2013.
Before joining the McCrory administration, Pope assembled a chessboard of GOP players hell-bent on dismantling public education. Once in place, these kings, queens and knights of private education passed legislation giving charter schools carte blanche (Don't want gay kids in your school? No problem!) and draining $90 million from public schools and filling the coffers of charters.
Public financing of judicial races has been heralded as a way to reduce political influence in dispensing the law. Candidates for state supreme court and appellate court that abide by strict fundraising spending limits qualified for public campaign funds. (Democracy North Carolina has an excellent analysis of this system.)
In North Carolina, the program had been in place since 2004. Despite its success, the state legislature repealed that provision last year.
As Facing South reported last year, during Pope's last term as a state legislator in 2002, he "led the fight against the bill that would go on to create the N.C. Public Campaign Fund."
Facing South went on to say that once ensconced as deputy budget director, Pope pressured Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican recipient of Pope's campaign largesse, into dropping an amendment last year that would have saved public financing of judicial elections.
THE RURAL CENTER
Pope served on the Civitas board with Bob Luddy, whom McCrory appointed to the Rural Economic Development Center Board. Within months, the Rural Center, long derided by conservatives, underwent an "audit," which criticized the agency for a lack of grant monitoring and excessive pay ($250,000 after 25 years of service) for the director, Billy Ray Hall.
With Luddy's insistence, two major grant programs for infrastructure and building restoration are dismantled, restructured and placed under the N.C. Department of Commerce. (The Rural Center remained an independent agency funded with federal dollars beyond the reach of Pope.)
Notably, a state audit also later revealed problems at the commerce department. And if you think $250,000 is a lot of money, consider that McCrory administration minions with little or no experience—except working for the governor's election campaign—received a starting pay of more than $80,000.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No bang for this buck"