While lawmakers wrangle over painful cuts and tough tax increases in the state budget, consider this trivia question: What do Democrats James Black, Marc Basnight, Tony Rand and David Hoyle, and Republican Patrick Ballantine have in common?
Answer: More than $100,000 (each) in political action committee money channeled last year into their campaign coffers.
According to research conducted by Democracy South, a campaign-finance reform group based in Carrboro, these five lawmakers--all in power positions at the General Assembly--top the list of PAC money recipients in the state legislature.
Black, the Mecklenburg Democrat and House speaker, collected $341,650 in PAC money last year--34 percent of his total contributions. This was nearly twice as much as Senate president Basnight, who ran second with $191,329--18 percent of his total.
Not every legislator chose to accept PAC money. Two lawmakers--Chapel Hill Democratic Rep. Joe Hackney and Denton Republican Rep. Stan Bingham -- refused all special-interest money.
"I don't claim any heroism," says Hackney, the House speaker pro tem. "It just felt like the right thing to do."
By contrast, his Chapel Hill colleague, state Sen. Howard Lee, ranked 12th on Democracy South's list of the 13 top PAC money recipients. The only Triangle lawmaker to appear, Lee collected $72,267--41 percent of his contributions--from various special interests, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Central Carolina Radiologists, each of which kicked in $5,000. Other top donors to the appropriations committee co-chairman's campaign included groups representing anesthesiologists, educators, Bank of America, AT&T and Duke Power.
The July 30 report found that a record $5.4 million in special-interest money flowed into legislative campaigns in 2000, most of it from large industry interests such as banking and insurance. Between 1990 and 2000, the average number of PAC dollars per legislator tripled from $9,700 to $29,300.
Democracy South's report also points to the growing abyss between individual donor dollars and PAC money. In 1990, legislators took an average of $1.60 in special-interest money for every $1 given by donors of $100 or less. Ten years later, that ratio has grown to $3.20 to $1.
"As the price of campaigning goes up, the concentration of money goes up--and goes increasingly to incumbents, less to challengers--and the role of business lobbies grows," says Pete MacDowell, the group's executive director.
PACs affiliated with Bank of America and other large North Carolina banks contributed $469,120 to legislative candidates in hopes of protecting loopholes that save them an estimated $100 million in state taxes every year. Other big donors included the N.C. Medical Society, the N.C. Home Builders Association, Duke Power, Nationwide Insurance, BellSouth, N.C. Realtors and Carolina Power and Light.
State legislators have once again put the kibosh on a campaign-finance reform bill that would create voluntary spending limits, with Basnight calling it "too bold a step." But MacDowell gave House leaders some kudos for supporting public financing of judicial campaigns this year.
"That's a step," he says. "But we're not backing off for a minute on the full voter-owned election bill. It'll be alive next year."