Legal stealing may end soon

by Jim Longworth

Last week during President Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremonies, some of the mall crowd waved bye bye to George Bush, and the waves weren’t affectionate. I had a similar experience during Gov. Bev Perdue’s inaugural. I too felt the urge to wave a hand (or just a particular finger) in Mike Easley’s direction. That’s because for the past eight years, Easley and his allies in the state legislature showed a general disregard for the concerns of us common folk. Remember when gas pipelines were damaged during Hurricane Katrina, and pump prices skyrocketed in some communities? Unlike the Georgia governor and his legislators who suspended gasoline taxes and came down hard on profiteers, Mediocre Mike and his lawmakers gave us no protection from price gougers, nor any relief from gas taxes. And, speaking of oil, they also refused to cut taxes on home-heating fuel when the price was on the rise. On the healthcare front, they took no steps to investigate why Blue Cross Blue Shield’s customer premiums had risen three times faster than the average paycheck, and four times faster than the cost of living. They did nothing to fight the Supreme Court’s decision to let stand unethical seizure of private property under the eminent domain law. They refused to pay reparations to victims of forced sterilization. And they did nothing to stop state and local industry incentives that have scammed taxpayers time and again. Fortunately we have a new governor, and while her political party still runs the state, there may already be reason to celebrate a sea change on at least one hot-button issue: Last week a legislative panel voted to end forced annexations, which means that cities seeking to expand their boundaries could only do so if those being annexed first give their blessing by referendum. The panel‘s decision couldn’t have come at a more historically poetic moment. Fifty years ago, the state passed a law making involuntary annexation legal. As with many other citizen rights issues, however, North Carolina was slow to correct its mistakes. Already, 48 states have reformed their annexation laws, with over 60 percent making referendum a prerequisite. But proponents of forced annexation say that citizens have always had input. Not so. Public hearings are nothing but staged formalities, and once the land grab is made, new residents are told to sue the aggressor city if services aren’t up to par. Meanwhile, the North Carolina League of Municipalities (the mouthpiece for mayors and city councils) contends that annexations have helped cities to manage growth. That’s a hard point to argue in some cases, but the fact remains that pirating land is a flawed strategy for improving quality of life, especially in a cashstrapped city. It’s like a couple with six kids and no means of support deciding to have another baby because it will make them better parents. Last week’s panel vote was encouraging for millions of people who currently reside outside city limits. According to a report from the John Locke Foundation, 46 percent of our state’s population (over 4 million people), live in unincorporated areas. Says Locke Report author Daren Bakst, “[T]hese are the people who could become victims of forced annexation. They deserve better than this state’s current annexation law.” Maybe so, but the panel’s vote is moot unless it is ratified by the full House. So now’s the time for Gov. Perdue to step up to the plate and use her newfound political capital to persuade legislators to get behind annexation reform. It might mean having to buck some powerful lobbies, but if successful she can take credit for ending a half-century of legalized stealing, while establishing a template for governing by listening. If, on the other hand, she stays out of the fray and supports the status quo, then four years from now everyone who has ever been annexed might be waving bye bye to her, and to the lawmakers who chose the wrong side of this populist issue. What it all comes down to is this: Citizens of North Carolina simply want the right to decide where they live, and to be free from government oppression. It’s not an unreasonable request, considering we already won that right a long time ago during the largest forced annexation battle ever waged. That’s when we told England where to stick their aggression, and then we kicked their asses back across the pond. Those were the good old days.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).