Art Pope's money drives NC legislature's anti-environmental turn

An environmental watchdog group released its scorecard this week for North Carolina's 2011 General Assembly, which broke the record for the most anti-environmental legislature in the 13 years the organization has been giving out grades.

Lawmakers backed by conservative benefactor Art Pope and his family got particularly low scores on the environment, with grades far below the legislature's record-low average. That suggests Pope's considerable political influence -- coupled with his ideological hostility toward regulation -- may be imperiling North Carolina environmental health for years to come.

"Using the economy as cover, and repeating unfounded claims that 'regulations kill jobs,' this General Assembly has put environmental safeguards in their crosshairs," stated the report from the N.C. League of Conservation Voters. "This year's scores are the lowest we have reported since NCLCV has been producing a Scorecard." The group graded state lawmakers for the first time 13 years ago.

For the first time since Reconstruction, North Carolina's legislature is controlled by Republicans, who hold a majority in both the House and Senate. The legislative leadership has been outspoken in its commitment to an anti-regulatory agenda.

NCLCV graded lawmakers on a selection of bills it considered to have the greatest impact of all environmental legislation considered during the session. The bills it looked at addressed key issues including energy, beach protection, water conservation and funding for key environmental programs.

The average score among House members during the 2011 long session was 43%, compared to 67% in the 2009-2010 session. (North Carolina's biennial legislature meets for a long session followed by a short session held in the election year.) Meanwhile, the Senate average in 2011 was only 27% -- a dramatic decline from 69% in 2009-2010, when Democrats held power.

Those lawmakers who received financial backing from Pope and his family members scored far lower than average. (See chart below for details; click on image for a larger version.) Art Pope contributed $32,000 to 10 winning candidates -- all Republicans -- for the N.C. House, with his wife Katherine, mother Joyce and sister Amanda Pope contributing another $89,000 the same candidates, for a total of $121,000. The average NCLCV score for those candidates was 20.1%.

Art Pope contributed another $34,250 to 13 winning Senate candidates, with the same Pope family members contributing another $73,000 to the same candidates, for a total of $107,250. The average NCLCV score for those those candidates was 10.6%.

The legislature's anti-conservation turn comes at a time when a great deal is at stake for North Carolina's environment. A report released last week by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that while the state's air is cleaner than it was two decades ago, population growth is causing other pollution problems and stressing drinking water supplies.