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Some Say Bill to Keep Transportation Board in Line Lacks Teeth

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RALEIGH — The North Carolina Board of Transportation has had its share of controversies recently. Allegations of people buying board seats and conflicts of interest have been flying for months. Now, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would keep board members in check, but some people say it doesn't go the extra mile.

For months, board members have been criticized for allegedly making political contributions in exchange for board seats. Each seat has considerable power, since board members have the final say on all the state's road projects. But, in a vote that was not along party lines, the N.C. House decided an overhaul of the board did not need a limit on campaign contributions.

Critics say a House measure took the wrong exit on the road to reform the board of transportation.

"It does lack teeth, yes, it lacks, it's not yet a real reform," said Bob Hall, research director for Democracy South.

This week the House passed a bill revamping the transportation board -- reducing its size from 26 members to 19, requiring members to get ethics training, and having them disclose real estate holdings and other interests. But the House cut a provision limiting campaign donations by board members to $500.

Board members receive their appointments from the governor.

Watchdog groups on both sides of the political aisle say the House cut out the most important part of the reform bill.

"It takes out the one piece that was most vital, to sever the link of donors to seats' appointments, and doesn't address the actual powers that people have," said Hall.

"There's not much reform in this proposal," said Don Carrington of the John Locke Foundation. "The consultant's report was real good. We still have too large a board with way too much power."

Some board members say the campaign contribution limit borders on discrimination.

"I would question whether or not it's constitutional," said board member Durwood Stephenson. "I don't think you can come to me and say 'you cannot give to this candidate if you give to this candidate then some of your other rights to be considered for service are diminished.'"

Two watchdog groups say what really needs to be diminished is the board of transportation's power to decide nearly every road project in the state. When you put so much power in an appointed body, they say, it opens the door to political influence.

The Senate must still vote on the board overhaul.


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