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Political Donations Decide NC’s Environmental Future

The Pollution Lobby: Will political donations decide North Carolina’s environmental future?

In a corner room on the top floor of Raleigh’s Legislative Office Building, more than a dozen business lobbyists sit around a table, sleeves rolled up, papers piled high.

The lobbyists are writing the law.

Forget what you learned in civics class. This is what really happens: “Working groups” stacked with corporate lobbyists and convened by legislative staffers write many of North Carolina’s environmental bills. No elected official is at today’s meeting — and even though the General Assembly is not in session, lobbyists will continue holding these meetings to craft legislation they want enacted.

On this day, the group in Room 612 is refining a bill passed by the state House in 1995 but not by the Senate. It was written by the Manufacturers & Chemical Industry Council (MCIC), a savvy lobby composed of 65 top companies, including R.J. Reynolds, Champion Paper, Glaxo, DuPont, Abbott Labs and Waste Management Inc.

When the bill ran into trouble in the state Senate, MCIC lobbyists asked allies in the legislature to authorize a working group to modify its wording. (MCIC’s executive director, George Everett, is a former head of the Division of Environmental Management and one of a horde of state regulators who now use their contacts and expertise to help the pollution lobby.)

The MCIC bill, known as the environmental self-audit bill, would shield polluters from fines and civil lawsuits if they voluntarily report their violations to state regulators. Today’s discussion focuses on whether the extra profits a company reaps while breaking environmental rules should be forfeited. The dominant view is no. “It’s another way of penalizing people for past violations, whether or not we call it a penalty,” says Charles Case, a lobbyist for GE and Chem-Nuclear.
The lone environmental lobbyist in the room, Bill Holman of the Sierra Club and Conservation Council of N.C., objects but he’s clearly outnumbered. There’s an air of camaraderie in Room 612. The lobbyists share stories of their families and weekends — and they share something else: As members of North Carolina’s informal pollution lobby, they believe business suffers from too much environmental regulation. They want the laws changed.

The pollution lobby is a powerful force in state politics. It includes textile, chemical and other manufacturers, the utilities, timber companies, agribusiness, developers, builders, oil jobbers, mining interests, billboard owners and the lawyers that do their bidding.

While environmental groups can only pay for two full-time lobbyists, the pollution lobby supports dozens, paying them more than $1.4 million a year. N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry alone has six lobbyists. Duke Power retains four. Pork producers, hazardous waste companies, soft-drink bottlers, furniture makers and high-tech manufacturers — they’re all well represented in Raleigh. They gather in the “Lobster Room” (the telephone room of the state Legislative Building), a place that often has the raucous feel of a college fraternity.

Keith Hundley of Weyerhaeuser explains how the lobby networks. “I might be going to a N.C. Citizens for Business & Industry meeting one day, going to a Forestry Association meeting one day, going to a Manufacturers & Chemical Industry Council meeting yet another day. Then there’s the palaver that goes on in the Lobster Room.” The lobbyists brainstorm about how to build a unified front, even if a bill only affects one industry. “It’s almost like trading my help for your help,” he says.

Once his colleagues agree on a strategy, Hundley springs into action. He’ll find a friendly lawmaker willing to champion the bill, arming the politician with “my facts and data. You’ve got to help this legislator understand that you’re going to work the committees, you’re going to get other lobbyists to help.”

Finally, the time comes for the financial payoff. “Down the line,” Hundley explains, “if that legislator is ever going to run for office again, he or she is going to call for your help. That’s just part of the system, and I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Campaign money cements the bond between lobbyist and legislator. As the price for a seat in the legislature goes up — it jumped fivefold from 1976 to 1994, even after adjusting for inflation — the pollution lobby is relied upon even more for cash. An analysis of campaign records by the Institute for Southern Studies shows that anti-environmental interests gave $1.3 million to state legislators elected in 1994 — 40 percent of their identifiable, non- party campaign contributions.

Until there’s an effective alternative source of money — public funds for candidates pledging to run clean campaigns — wealthy polluters will have a big advantage over the ordinary voter, campaign finance reformers say. In exchange for supplying cash to needy politicians, the pollution lobby gets special access to propose (or write) laws that make it richer, so it can make even more contributions and get even more access. It’s a vicious cycle, with ordinary voters left out — except to pay the bill for pollution clean ups and higher taxes.

The pollution lobby has been around for years, primarily financing Democratic incumbents. But the 1994 Republican victory emboldened it to become more aggressive. When Speaker Harold Brubaker announced the new Republican majority in the state House would become “the voice of business,” few people may have realized that meant business lobbyists would actually be writing our laws — but that’s exactly what has happened.

With help from key legislators taking their money, lobbyists got bills written and enacted on such diverse topics as local phone service deregulation, freedom to carry a concealed weapon, tax breaks for soft-drink bottlers, and limits on awards in lawsuits against negligent companies.
The pollution lobby scored successes, too. For example, Mike Carpenter, a former lawyer for the state Attorney General and now a lobbyist for the N.C. Home Builders Association, drafted bills making it more difficult for state agencies to issue rules on everything from elevator safety to housing density in watersheds. The bills undercut the authority of good science by giving any legislator (prodded by a lobbyist) the power to delay a new rule for a year or more. At the insistence of Sen. J.K. Sherron, the top recipient of the Home Builders’ PAC money, the bills were inserted into the 194-page capital budget bill and passed with virtually no debate. A couple of weeks after the changes went into effect, the PAC gave Sherron another $2,000.

On a single day in April 1996 — a few weeks before the General Assembly convened — the Home Builders PAC handed out $36,150 to 102 candidates. “It costs a lot of money to run for office,” says Paul Wilms, a Home Builders lobbyist and another former head of the state’s Division of Environmental Management. “What we seek are people — both Democrats and Republicans — who understand what it takes to make payroll, who understand the burden of regulation, who understand that it’s not incidental that housing starts are the leading economic indicator.”

Wilms admits that campaign contributions often buy access to lawmakers. “I’ve found North Carolina’s government to be exceedingly open” to everyone, he says. But a gift of several hundred dollars “does get you a hearing.” Since 1992, the Builders PAC has doubled in size and during that time the association boasts that it has weakened laws affecting building in watersheds — areas draining into drinking water supplies — “by 80 percent.”

During the 1995-96 General Assembly, lawmakers taking pollution lobby money also promoted bills written by the lobby to reduce protection of wetlands, gut local pesticide controls, eliminate the rights of citizens to appeal pollution permits, limit state regulation of toxic air pollution, sell bonds for more highways, compensate property owners for “takings” and delay underground storage tank clean ups. Some of these bills haven’t become law yet, but the pollution lobby continues to push them.

The sheer number of business-backed bills introduced overwhelmed Tom Bean of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, Bill Holman, and a few part-time environmental lobbyists. In many cases, bills were written, introduced and even endorsed by Gov. Jim Hunt’s administration without conservationists ever being asked for their perspectives — a clear signal of retreat from the slow gains made under House speakers Dan Blue and Liston Ramsey.

In addition to using “working groups” and its purchased access to legislators, the pollution lobby pushes its agenda on legislative study committees and before rule-making agencies. For example, a coalition of home builders, mining, timber, and other business interests vigorously opposed a plan by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to designate “critical habitat areas” to protect endangered species. The coalition sued the agency, arguing that it lacked authority to make such designations. One commission member who agreed, Richard Budd, asked his long-time friend (and now Republican gubernatorial candidate) Rep. Robin Hayes to sponsor a bill declaring that the commission had no authority over habitats. The bill passed, the coalition dropped its lawsuit — and Robin Hayes’ campaign got $32,000 from Budd, his wife, his three sons and their wives.

The Home Builders have also pressured the Environmental Management Commission to develop more lenient rules for state-protected wetlands. (Large wetland tracts are regulated under federal law.) After years of public hearings and scientific studies, the EMC issued new rules in March 1996. One rule increased the size of a wetland that could be paved over or filled up without review from one-third of an acre to one acre. But that wasn’t enough for the Home Builders.

A month later, a legislative study commission adopted a proposal to exempt more tracts of wetland from review and make it easier for developers to destroy other areas; it was written by an attorney for the Home Builders and N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. “You can bet the Home Builders had an influence, but they should,” says Rep. John Weatherly, a commission member and retired executive with the timber giant, Bowater Ltd. “They represent development and progress in this state — things like homes, places to live.

“These environmental whackos can be out there,” adds the Kings Mountain Republican. “They don’t own a spit of land, but they want to dictate its use.” A Duke Power lobbyist on the commission made the motion to adopt the proposal, the second came from a coastal economic developer, and it easily passed. Weatherly says he’s glad Duke and the Home Builders are politically active. “Any group that doesn’t stand up and let their viewpoints be known is going to be swamped.”

Through organized grassroots pressure, citizens can sometimes get their viewpoints heard and can even beat the pollution lobby, or least gain partial victories, as they did in 1996 against the hog industry. But the current system of making public servants dependent on private campaign money allows rich donors to set the overall political agenda and limit the voices represented in Raleigh.
“We need serious reforms, including public financing of elections, to break the bond between polluter and politician,” says Pete MacDowell of the N.C. Alliance for Democracy (NCAD), a coalition of 40 organizations and hundreds of individuals advocating changes in election laws. “Right now, the money from these polluters is poisoning our democracy as well as our air and water.”

– summer 1996