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Time to Level the Playing Field

The Pollution Lobby: Time To Level The Playing Field

Members of the pollution lobby have different interests and don’t always oppose every environmental proposal. But they are united by a common perspective: North Carolina’s economic growth — i.e., their own prosperity — is being hampered by too many environmental regulations; rules are bad enough, tough enforcement is even worse.

Leading members of the lobby include the N.C. Farm Bureau and other agribusiness interests, real estate developers and builders organized by the N.C. Home Builders Association, road contractors, fuel oil dealers, chemical and drug makers confederated in the Manufacturers & Chemical Industry Council, electric utilities, timber and mining companies, billboard owners, and a host of other industries represented by the state’s mega-chamber of commerce, N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry.

The financial muscle of these industries presents a formidable challenge to advocates for clean water, clean air, land-use planning, and resource conservation. Two sets of figures illustrate the imbalance between pro- and anti-environmental forces.

Lobbying Money: On disclosure reports filed with the Secretary of State, 56 companies and trade groups in the pollution lobby said they paid 143 registered lobbyists $1.4 million during 1995 to promote — and often write — favorable legislation. They reported $226,000 in other expenses, although 28 reported no other expenses and a few failed to disclose any compensation.

By contrast, nine conservation groups reported spending a total of $92,100 for lobbying, including the lobbying time of several staff members and payments for two “full-time” lobbyists (Bill Holman of the Sierra Club and Conservation Council of N.C. and Tom Bean of the N.C. Wildlife Federation).

PAC Money: From January 1993 to April 1996, 36 political action committees affiliated with the pollution lobby spent $2,078,749, mostly in contributions to state legislative campaigns. That doesn’t include donations from individual executives associated with these same firms, which easily exceeds the $2 million figure, or the money spent by bankers, retailers and other business interests that often oppose environmental regulations but are not included in the pollution lobby.

By contrast, the two environmental PACs (Sierra Club PAC and NC League of Conservation Voters) spent $21,165 during the same period — about one percent of the pollution lobby’s PAC money.

For a practical example of how money distorts a fair fight, consider what happened during the 1996 General Assembly debate to enact stricter regulations on hog farms. As public pressure to regulate has increased, the pollution lobby stepped up its spending and lobbying of General Assembly members.

• Message Manipulation. In May 1996, the N.C. Pork Producers Association held a “Pork Proud” lobby day and launched a statewide media blitz, using a clearly false statement as its rallying cry — and a $500,000 budget to drive the message home. The ads claim that “97.2 percent of those [hog farms] inspected have caused no water-quality problems.” Debbie Crane of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources says the statement is “grossly inaccurate.” Three percent of the farms were deliberately dumping animal waste into surface waters, but many more had leaking lagoons or lacked sufficient land for waste spraying.

• Hired Guns. In late May, swine interests hired the top-ranked Democratic and Republican lobbyists, Zeb Alley and Don Beason, plus John Bode, and sponsored them through a new group called “Farmers for Fairness.” The address and contact for this mysterious group is Hog Slat Inc., a leading maker of hog houses and farm equipment. By June, the industry had 9 registered lobbyists roaming the legislative halls, using their “good ole boy” contacts to promote the hog industry’s cause.

• Work the Network. Demonstrating the solidarity of the pollution lobby, 7 other agribusiness lobbyists from the Poultry Federation and Farm Bureau contacted lawmakers and gathered at key legislative meetings to pressure for weaker regulations. At one meeting, Ann Christian, a lobbyist for the Pork Producers, was invited by the subcommittee chair to step behind the lectern and present to members an industry-written bill that would expand the rights of hog farmers.

• Donor Clout. Zeb Alley, a lobbyist for the hog industry and other polluters, is the single largest individual contributor to the 1994 campaigns of the General Assembly members, dishing out $12,356 to 30 members. The heads of the third and fourth largest donating families to winning legislative candidates are hog producers, William H. Prestage ($9,750) and Wendell H. Murphy ($8,639). Alley and the two hog families have invested over $100,000 in N.C. politics since 1990. By the end of 1995, Alley had already handed out more than $10,000 to 24 legislative candidates in 1996 races.

• PAC Investments. The N.C. Pork Producers political action committee is expanding rapidly; by April 1996, it had $52,580 on hand to spend. In the previous 15 months, it donated to such key legislative leaders as state senators Marc Basnight, Beverly Perdue, Tony Rand, Charlie Albertson, David Hoyle, J.K. Sherron, and Roy Cooper, and state representatives Harold Brubaker, Leo Daughtry, Billy Creech, Norris Tolson, William Owens, Chuck Neely, James Carpenter, and Jim Black. An analysis of its reports shows that the majority of the PAC’s money comes not from ordinary farmers but from executives and other employees of the major hog integrators, feed and chemical suppliers, hog house builders, equipment makers, and related industries.

• Targeted Giving. In early June 1996, a 6-member House Agriculture subcommittee approved the weakening of measures proposed by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Animal Waste. The committee includes a poultry grower and at least 3 other farm owners. In their 1994 campaigns, the 6 members received more than $12,000 from agricultural interests, including one-fourth of the money they raised from identified individuals and $3,100 from the PACs of the Farm Bureau, Pork Producers and Poultry Federation. The chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Charlie Albertson, got 22 percent of his 1994 campaign money from hog interests, more than any other legislator.

Rather than being the exception, the scenario played out by the hog industry is becoming standard operating procedure for a wide range of polluting interests. Campaign money is given to key legislators, hired lobbyists write bills that get sponsored by those legislators, lobbyists close ranks, and a new law is passed, or a key amendment added, that subverts the basic framework of local and state environmental protection.

The process also subverts the basic leveling principle of democracy — one person, one vote — by giving wealthy donors an unfair advantage over ordinary voters. Voters still count at the ballot box, however, and that means politicians must listen to them when they’re loud, well organized and numerous.

The hog fight has been a classic example of citizens organizing to overcome a powerful industry. Each small victory has taken a huge effort, with legislative loopholes, delays, or weakened enforcement making them even more fragile. Given the obstacles, the successes are indeed significant. But where do they lead? The advantage the wealthy get under the current system of financing campaigns means the poor, minorities, working people, and grassroots environmentalists are doomed to wage the same battles over and over, even when they win a fight, because the system itself is rigged against them.

As long as wealth dominates, members of these groups can’t readily run for office, or get elected, or, most significantly, define the priorities of their government. Removing the money advantage would do wonders to level the playing field and create opportunities for new voices in public office — which is why so many hog-industry opponents favor strong campaign finance reforms. Tackling systemic reforms is part of being a more politically sophisticated environmentalist and an effective citizen.