Source: John Hood – Carolina Journal

I don’t have a strong opinion yet about the merits of a proposed federal biodefense lab in Granville County. The hotly debated project, which would primarily conduct research into animal diseases, would clearly serve a legitimate public purpose (gathering data with defense and public-health implications) and have ancillary economic benefits for the region and North Carolina as a whole. But opponents of the project are also raising some legitimate questions about public safety and local land-use effects.

Like I said, I haven’t made up my mind about the project itself. What I do have a strong opinion about, however, is the recent decision of the Golden LEAF Foundation to spend $262,248 in public funds to promote the project and respond to its critics. The decision smells.

John Merritt, a former Easley administration aide with whom I rarely agree, is on the Golden LEAF board and opposed the plan to grant the funds to the N.C. Biotechnology Center, which will in turn spend them on advertising and public relations. After getting outvoted by fellow board members, Merritt summed up the problem well: the grant is obviously for political advocacy, not economic development. “Does Golden LEAF really want to get into this role?” he asked. “I think we’re making a big mistake.”

Remember that Golden LEAF is not really a private philanthropy. Its board is appointed by politicians, and it spends money from the national tobacco settlement – money that should by rights have flowed into the state’s treasury, based on the original theory of the case that the perfidy of Big Tobacco forced taxpayers to finance treatment of smoking-related illness through Medicaid and the state employee health plan. These are public dollars, appropriated by government appointees, but outside of the formal state budget process.

In recent years, both state and local officials have become increasingly comfortable with evading restrictions on publicly funded lobbying and campaigning. Most recently, a number of counties sought to spend taxpayer dollars to benefit referendum campaigns for local bonds and tax hikes. In cases where the real-estate transfer tax was on the ballot, for example, local officials complained that the North Carolina Realtors Association was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars advocating a voter rejection of the tax, but no private donors stepped up to fund large-scale advertising in favor of the tax. They concluded that finding some way to use taxpayer dollars as a substitute was therefore justified.

It was flawed logic. When individuals, businesses, or private associations expend dollars to advocate a particular cause or belief, they are using only resources acquired through voluntary exchange. By creating a valuable good or service to sell, they earned the right to dispose of those resources as they see fit. Government funds are in a totally different category. They are taken forcibly from those who earned them. It’s legitimate to tax as long as the proceeds are used to finance core public services, services that protect individual rights or can’t be delivered through voluntary means.

Doing a sales job on a biodefense lab for Granville County hardly qualifies as a core public service.

The more I learned about the interests behind the sales job, the worse the Golden LEAF decision looked. For one thing, the public and private institutions behind the pro-lab coalition include the likes of Merck, the EPA, major agribusiness associations, and large swaths of state government. These organizations already spend millions of dollars getting their messages out via public speeches, press shops, websites, and lobbyists. It strains credulity to suggest that without $262,248 from Golden LEAF, they were powerless to rebut the awesome public-relations power of the anti-lab coalition, with the apt acronym of GNAT, run by activists and local residents.

Moreover, everyone involved in the debate seems to agree that North Carolina State University would benefit, in the form of grants and research opportunities, if the federal lab locates in the state. So why did two key members of the Golden LEAF board, Thomas Bunn and Lawrence Davenport, think it was okay to cast votes for the grant despite their strong ties to N.C. State? Bunn, the current Golden LEAF Chairman, is on the university’s board of visitors. Davenport, the controversial former chairman, is on the NCSU board of trustees and has made personal use of Golden LEAF funds in the past.

The foundation’s grant to the Biotech Center to advocate approval of the Granville County lab doesn’t just smell. It stinks.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

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