State budget Easter egg hunt

by Kirk Ross

There’s nothing quite like cracking a freshly-printed budget. Just look at all those finely-crafted numbers and… ahh, smell those special provisions.

This is the time of year when it becomes clearer what kind of last minute “language” found its way into the budget and various other bills passed in the last few days of the session.

Among the Easter eggs this year was a lil’ bit of legislation that sorta kinda takes authority over part of Raleigh from Raleigh and puts it back in the hands of the legislature. Specifically, Senate Bill 1313 – sponsored by Wake’s own Sen. Janet Cowell – prevents the City of Oaks from imposing its building and zoning regulations over much of the state capital area.

It’s not the first time such a move was tried and won’t be the last. Local governments are, by law, “creatures of the state.” And as one local budget officer recently told me: “The legislature giveth and the legislature taketh away.”

Several years ago, when UNC and Chapel Hill officials were locked in a sometimes heated discussion over a rather large expansion of the main campus, a special provision floated into the budget one evening. It would strip the town of its zoning authority over the campus and pretty much everything else owned by the university. I think the math worked out to roughly 13 percent of the town at the time.

Needless to say, the provision caused an uproar and a lot of finger pointing. The university said it didn’t ask for it and then-Sen. Howard Lee, who represented the town and was a co-chair of the budget writing, had to explain how it got there to his constituents. Lee managed to get it removed and the responsible party was later identified as Sen. Tony Rand, who told me afterward (and I swear he had a tear in his eye when he did) that he couldn’t bear the thought of the university not being able to expand and someone’s child not being able to get into Carolina.

As you might imagine, the university went into the next round of negotiations with the town in a slightly stronger position, what with the town officials very clearly aware that the recent whistling sound near Town Hall was a rather large caliber shell hurtling across their bow.

There was a backlash of course, and it likely cost Lee his senate seat. But isn’t that a fine bunch of new buildings down on main campus?

As the Raleigh episode illustrates, the state is not playing around when it comes to wielding its authority to shape cities and towns. Local governments might have won one by getting some local tax options this session, but Home Rule is still not a popular concept in the halls of the legislature.

Help wanted

Please, someone – anyone – sign up to run against Liddy Dole. The situation got urgent this week when Public Policy Polling announced that they had run out of possible contenders to poll folks about. Last week, they ran the numbers on NC Democratic Party Chair Jerry Meek and then threatened to hoist Clay Aiken’s name up the flagpole. (The Independent Weekly, it should be noted, was way ahead of them with a recent parody of an Aiken campaign platform in the music section.)

I don’t know about you but that’s one set of poll numbers that could shake my faith in the future of democracy. So, quick, somebody grab the mic. If only Mildred the Bear was still with us.

As an FYI, I still got two dollars that says a big name – like a former or soon-to-be-former governor – gets into the race. Just a hunch.