August 3, 1997
“Eyes on the Prize”: Optometrists versus Ophthalmologists
One of the prime examples of individuals from special interests bundling contributions involves the ongoing turf struggle between ophthalmologists and optometrists. “Optometrists, who fix vision for a living, intentionally blur the extent of their contributions to legislators,” wrote Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer in a May 5, 1991 article describing how “key optometrists collect money from colleagues . . . and channel it to lawmakers.”
The practice continues today — and played a role in the passage of a bill through the General Assembly on May 20, 1997. The bill allows optometrists to prescribe a broad array of drugs to their patients without collaborating with an ophthalmologist or other physician, as previously required. The bill overcame a shaky start. When it was first introduced in 1995, Republicans had taken control of the House, and were ready to flex their muscles against the likes of Rep. Jim Black, a Charlotte optometrist and previous Majority Leader for the Democrats. With the support of House Speaker Harold Brubaker (R-Randolph), House Rules Committee Chair Richard Morgan held the bill, preventing a floor vote in 1995. Ophthalmologists showed their support, sending 16 checks to Richard Morgan’s 1996 reelection campaign and $1,500 from their PAC. Brubaker got checks from 14 of the same ophthalmologists, plus the PAC’s largest gift, $4,800.
Having passed the Senate in 1995, the bill was eligible for consideration in the 1996 spring “short” session. On April 4, 1996, in a display of bundling that rivaled the optometrists, Brubaker collected 70 checks from physicians across the state, mostly ophthalmologists and anesthesiologists, plus checks from 7 physician-related PACs, for a total take of $25,500. The bill remained in the Rules Chair’s pocket throughout the short session.
With their own bundling, optometrists pumped $22,000 to Rep. Jim Black’s 1996 campaign, much of which he distributed to other Democratic legislators — and, most important, optometrists also gave key Republicans financial aid. By the time their bill was introduced in the House in March 1997, they had lined up 77 sponsors, led by Republicans Larry Justus, William Hiatt, and Don Davis.
Overall, our analysis, based on comparing contributors’ names with listings in professional directories, shows that optometrists and their PAC gave $122,905 to 111 of the 170 winning legislative candidates, compared to $46,351 given 76 legislators by ophthalmologists and their PAC. The final House vote was 91 to 22, with Jim Black abstaining. The Senate passed the bill by a margin of 44 to 4. The vote followed the money.