Speed kills, they say. So does keeping North Carolina State House Speaker Jim Black in office. Combine Black in power with dangerous traffic conditions and you've got the potential for a real blood bath.
Over the last few years, more than 20 people have been killed and dozens more hurt or seriously injured in accidents at the intersections on the North Carolina Department of Transportation Spot Safety List. The list is a compilation of some of the state's most dangerous stretches of road, accident hotspots that usually could be fixed with a traffic light, turn lane or wider shoulder.
But Black and Marc Basnight, president pro tem of the Senate, have found other, more important uses for the DOT money -- like furthering their own political careers.
By now, you've probably heard about the $24 million in personal slush funds Black, Basnight and Republican ally Richard Morgan kept for themselves in the state budget to reward those loyal to them with pork projects. Meanwhile, untested rape and evidence kits lined the halls of the state's criminal lab due to lack of funding.
You may not have heard about another $10 million slush fund DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett keeps for Black and Basnight at the DOT.
Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat and Black ally from Pasquotank County, owns 10 apartment and commercial properties along Main Street in Elizabeth valued at about $3 million. The parcels happen to be in the same section of Main Street as the "streetscape" improvements that Black and Basnight used $250,000 of their DOT slush funds to pay for. The project included burying overhead wires, installing decorative lighting and adding brick walkways. It's one of many questionable projects Black and Basnight have blown millions of transportation dollars on while safety projects linger unfunded. Owens later told Carolina Journal that Black must have been confused, because Owens actually asked for streetscape improvements to Water Street, which intersects Main Street.
Black must have also been confused when he used another of his slush funds in the state's Department of Cultural Resources to pay for the $500,000 renovation of the Main Street building that houses the Pasquotank Arts Council. State leaders said the project would transform Main Street into a vibrant center of commerce. Owens is listed as the legislator who requested it in state records.
The Journal has been screaming about this to no avail since last spring while cars continue to crash at unfunded spot safety projects. This is apparently how Black spent his time when he wasn't collecting illegal campaign donations or working with a lobbyist who divided her time between raising money for him for free and helping her clients write legislation that benefits them to be submitted by Black.
Months ago, I wrote that every day that passes without a call for Black's resignation by the Charlotte Observer, other big NC dailies and Black's Democratic colleagues is another day when all of them implicitly condone the sleaze oozing from his office -- another day when they send the message to other politicians that this kind of behavior is acceptable.
I should have been clearer. I didn't mean Black should resign from the speakership. I meant he should resign from office. Aside from Black's Democratic colleagues, no entity wields more power to potentially push this man out of office is the Observer's editorial board. It is the biggest daily in the state and Black's home-county newspaper.
At first, the editorial board painted Black as a victim of a corrupt system. He should stay in office because his clout was needed to push through ethics reform legislation, the Observer wrote. (Does that mean that until Black was elected, the state legislature had never managed to pass legislation?) In return, Black mocked the media's coverage of his transgressions and suggested journalistic inaccuracies were to blame for his problems.
In one column, editorial page editor Ed Williams went so far as to trash Carolina Journal writer Paul Chesser for suggesting that Black, not the system, was the corrupting influence. Weeks later, the Observer's editorial board was shamed into calling for Black's resignation from the speakership after Black's fundraising activities were referred to the Wake County district attorney by the state elections board, which said Black broke state law.
I commend the editorial board for the progress it has made so far. Admitting there is a problem is the first step. The opinion makers probably think they are falling on their swords for this community by propping Black up long enough for him to ram through the car-rental tax the downtown crowd wants to use to pay for a new package of arts buildings. Like most of the politicians around here, the Observer folks know that as long as Black has the hundreds of thousands of dollars he raised for his democratic colleagues' fall election bids in his campaign war chest, he can get the tax legislation through, whether he's speaker or not.
But some things are more important. It's time to kick the man to the curb.
Unfortunately, my journalist colleagues are still having difficulty with the "R" word. So let's practice together: Jim Black must resign from office. Jim Black must resign from office. Jim Black must resign from office. Jim Black must resign from office.
That wasn't so hard now, was it?