This legislative session, real
estate agents and homebuilders will fight proposals to authorize impact
fees on new development. Utilities companies will stand against a push
to require that they use more renewable energy sources. Beer wholesalers
will lobby against a new tax. And the legislators who vote on these
and other special-interest bills will operate under a cloud of suspicion,
this year more than ever.

Since the 2002 election, the
top 25 political action committees have nearly doubled their efforts
to court North Carolina lawmakers with cash, donating a record $5.1
million to state legislative candidates last year, according to a January
report by Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group that
monitors money in politics.

The N.C. Realtors PAC once
again led the charge, contributing more than $615,000 to legislative
candidates in 2006, a jump from $235,200 in 2002. Democracy N.C. reports
that the PAC gave at least $3,000 to 107 of the state’s 170 legislators.

Other top donors included the
political action committees for Citizens for Higher Education, the N.C.
Medical Society, the N.C. Homebuilders Association and the N.C. Academy
of Trial Lawyers.

Overall, the report shows
that contributions to political parties are also growing rapidly. The
top 25 PACs and their national affiliates gave almost a quarter of a
million dollars to the state Democratic and Republican parties.

Most legislators emphasize
that campaign contributions don’t influence their votes, but all of
the money in politics leads to the perception that the General Assembly
operates on a pay-to-play system.

“You don’t always know
whether the money follows the voting pattern or the voting pattern follows
the money,” says Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy N.C. and
author of the report.

Hall attributes the big jump
in campaign contributions to the ever-increasing cost of running for

“It is both the general increase
in the cost of campaigns and the competitiveness in races that pushes
legislative candidates to get as much as they can,” Hall says. “It’s
also the candidates who are not even in competitive races who are raising
money to send to the caucuses. And that money is sent to the targeted

Lawmakers agree. “I realized
it two campaign cycles ago,” says Rep. Rick Glazier. “The kind of
money you have to raise and spend is, in my view, beyond any kind of
rational or logical connection.”

Glazier, a Cumberland County
Democrat, accepted donations from several of the biggest PACs, including
$2,000 from the Citizens for Higher Education, $4,000 from the N.C.
Academy of Trial Lawyers and $2,000 from the Association of Educators.
He says neither he nor any other candidate were in a position to turn
the money down.

Hall has long argued that public
financing, which he helped implement in state-level judicial races,
is the only real solution. Glazier is one of several lawmakers who are
working with Democracy N.C. to craft public financing legislation this

“If we don’t create a public
financing option, we don’t have much of a choice,” Glazier says.

Legislators may get the chance
to vote on two public financing bills this year. Glazier will be one
of the sponsors of a bill that would set up a fund as an alternative
source of campaign financing for candidates in races for the Council
of State offices—secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, superintendent
of public instruction and attorney general, as well as the commissioners
of agriculture, labor and insurance. The bill, which has not yet been
drafted, will largely resemble the “voter-owned elections” bill
proposed in 2005, which never made it out of its senate committee.

Another bill would establish
a handful of pilot districts for public financing in legislative races.
Alleghany and Surry County Democrat Jim Harrell is working on that legislation.
He says he’s had trouble choosing the districts for the bill because
lawmakers are wary of financing the campaign of an opponent or someone
across the aisle. “It has not been received widely by all because
of the fear of the unknown,” Harrell says.

But Glazier says he’ll be
first in line. “I would be very much in favor in having my district
be one of those pilots,” he says.

“For a campaign to spend
$250,000 for a seat that pays $14,000 doesn’t make a lot of sense,”
Glazier says.

Five Giving PACs
2006 Election 2002 Election
N.C. Realtors $615,715 $235,200
for Higher Education
$425,000 $149,000
N.C. Medical
Society State & Federal
$377,973 $135,050
N.C. Home
Builders Association
$284,350 $210,950
N.C. Academy
of Trial Lawyers