Opinion: Media Mangle

This Land is Our Land

The editorialists at The News & Observer of Raleigh sounded the alarm on Tuesday about some state lawmakers’ “precipitous idea of creating an independent commission to solicit proposals from real estate brokers to sell off state property to private developers.”

The idea was spurred by a convergence of problems the state government must address: another expected budget shortfall, excessive unused state property, and building repairs and renovations needs that, at least count, tallied in excess of $1.2 billion. State officials earlier this year (illegally) borrowed $300 million to get started on those projects.

But the somewhat innovative idea was a bit much for the N&O editorial board, which never met a government land purchase they didn’t like.

“The idea is premature, and it is, frankly, presumptuous of lawmakers to charge ahead apparently without even having talked to agencies that own the property in question,” the editors wrote. “After all, this is not some freshly drained swamp land for which we want to find a sucker as soon as possible.”

To frankly refute the audacious claims in this single paragraph, the idea is long overdue, given the dilapidated and ignored conditions of so many state properties. To be frank again, it is the taxpayers who are suckers because they are stuck paying for wasted resources, and for interest and principal on repairs to crumbling facilities.

And if the N&O ran the state government, they would be buying (with more illegal borrowing) undrained swamp land with more of the taxpayers’ money. The editors over the years have been a consistent voice for environmentalist junk science and for the wasteful purchase by government of open land in order to “protect” it. For example, in this editorial from June 8 the N&O supported the state purchase of land surrounding military bases:

“The old-timers had it right: Buy land, because they’re not making any more of it. That homespun wisdom is more relevant than ever as thousands of acres of North Carolina are thrown to the mercy each year of bulldozer blades, chain saws and paving machines.

“Conservationists have long urged the state to preserve more land for recreation, wildlife habitat and protection of clean water, and to save family farms. By acquiring land near military bases, they say, the state can insulate vital bases from encroachment by residential and commercial development.

“Environmentalists are backing a bill in the legislature that would let the state borrow $65 million to start buying up land next year.

“Last year the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the Marine Corps joined forces and finances to buy 2,500 acres threatened by development near Camp Lejeune. There is no reason such cooperation cannot be expanded to serve the interests of both the military and civilian communities.”

Yes, there is a reason: State taxpayers can’t afford to buy more land. For crying out loud, they can’t afford to take care of the land they’ve got.

But the N&O editors say they have another concern about the allegedly wanton selling of state property to private developers: the potential for corruption.

“Consider the possibilities, admittedly hypothetical: Big-time developer tries to influence decision by making big-time contributions to the right people, namely those who appoint commission members. Others try to land spots on the commission because of their own contributions to key candidates, whereupon they steer business to friends and associates. Brokers and developers pressure members of commission to do things their way. Commission members feel the heat from lawmakers to make the state a quick buck instead of holding on to valuable land for parks, or for future expansion of state facilities.”

A worthy concern, of course, but where is the N&O’s concern about corruption every time one of our state politicians cuts an “economic development” deal?

The answer is that they are nowhere to be found. For example, in the case of the state offering Merck & Co. $36.8 million in tax breaks, the editors said the incentive package “deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

That’s the N&O worldview in a nutshell: government is to be unquestionably trusted, but not the private sector.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]