Local News

Phipps' Controversy Rekindles Debate About Politics, Money

Posted May 19, 2003 4:45 a.m. EDT

— Some critics said the troubles surrounding State Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps illustrate a system too easily tempted by campaign cash.

North Carolina voters decide who sits at the Council of State table with the commissioners for Agriculture, Labor, Insurance and Superintendent for Public Instruction.

"It's a structural issue that I think legislators ought to take a look at," said Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Southern Politics.

Guillory said he believes elected positions like Agriculture Commissioner should be appointed to take away the influence of campaign money.

In a tight, expensive statewide race, Phipps ran up hefty campaign debts to win. Phipps' contribution list is full of donors with a big stake in her decisions, including carnival operators and concessionaires vying for contracts at the state fair. Insurance Commissioner Jim Long made his name fighting for lower insurance rates, but his donor list is filled with companies he regulates.

Jesse Rutledge of the Center for Voter Education said studies show a vast majority of voters will not give up their right to choose, but they do support some reforms that would replace influential donations with public financing.

"That would mean they cease being fund-raisers and they start being campaigners and candidates," he said.

Gov. Mike Easley said he recognizes the problem, but he opposes what he calls welfare for politicians.

"I think the structure of having to raise enormous sums of money lends itself to temptation," he said. "I just haven't seen a plan that works at this point."

Easley said it is ultimately up to voters to make the best decision and it is up to candidates to act responsibly outside the influence of money.

Phipps is scheduled to return to Raleigh Tuesday, one week after Easley called for her to resign. Phipps spent last week in the western part of the state on business.