Fine Print - September 2008

On a need-to-know basis
By G.D. Gearino

There’s a fellow living near Butner, where the federal government is considering building a germ-defense lab, who is prone to dress in a white suit and red cape with a large BS emblazoned on his chest. He’s Bio-Safety Man,and he must be a scary dude. Or at least a very persuasive one. Why else would more than a quarter-million dollars of public money have been temporarily earmarked to overcome his opposition to the lab?

That’s right: For a few weeks, your money was set to be deployed to counter what is apparently the game-changing power of a cranky activist dressed up like a cartoon superhero. Golden LEAF, the nonprofit that is custodian of a big chunk of the billions of dollars North Carolina ultimately will receive from the cigarette industry, had approved a $262,000 grant to supporters of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, proposed for Granville County. Supporters say the money would have been used to educate the public about the lab. The educational campaign would have been fair and impartial. It would not have been used to sway, influence or otherwise affect public opinion. I will now pause to give readers a moment to compose themselves after their disbelieving hoots of laughter have subsided.

Are you back? OK, let’s now ponder some of the delicious ironies of this situation — not least among them the fact that money the tobacco industry had to cough up to the American public, as penance for being too good at marketing its wares, was set to be used for yet more questionable marketing. (And recall that cigarette makers used to “educate” consumers on the beneficial aspects of tobacco.) More delicious, though, was that the intended beneficiary of Golden LEAF’s largesse — the N.C. Biotechnology Center, which supports the construction of the biodefense lab — decided it wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face as it went about “educating” the public. In early August, it notified the foundation that it wouldn’t accept the money after all, calling the terms onerous. Why, if the Biotech Center had to be neutral and balanced on the matter, the foundation could just keep its stinkin’ money.

Such is the swampy territory that lies ahead of any official who seeks to use public money to advocate one thing or another under the guise of education. A similar misstep occurred earlier this year when Orange County commissioners approved spending $100,000 to educate voters on the proposed land-transfer tax. But both the timing of the educational campaign and the questionable need for it made the effort seem more like advocacy than education. The campaign was clearly a response to a private effort, underwritten by the real-estate industry, to derail the transfer tax. Not to mention that the proposed tax was so straightforward that any “education” was pointless. Many taxpayers never quite grasped why the county needed $100,000 to explain this simple concept: When you sell your house, you’re gonna give us a chunk of the proceeds. (Those well-educated voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax, by the way.)

But let’s return to the Golden LEAF grant, which stands as a prime example of the blurry line that separates the appropriate use of public money in economic development from its inappropriate use. Long before the proposed germ lab turned into a contentious local issue, a number of organizations — among them the Biotech Center — had formed a consortium to lobby the federal government to put the lab in North Carolina rather than in Kansas, Georgia, Mississippi or Texas. On its face, that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The Triangle is, after all, the state’s biotech center, and nothing says economic growth like having a whole bunch of well-paid scientists show up in town with moving vans trailing close behind. In short, this started out as simple business recruitment.

After the Biotech Center had applied for the foundation grant, however, public opposition grew louder and Bio-Safety Man donned his cape. By July, when Golden LEAF’s board voted to award the grant, the atmospheric pressure had changed dramatically. What had once been a relatively benign and routine effort to recruit a government lab had become an apocalyptic face-off between citizen and scientist. It was PowerPoint vs. exclamation point, as the scientists and bureaucrats made their plodding arguments, and the activists responded with theirs: Pathogens in the air! Water supply threatened! Doom! Death! Destruction! When the news came, at the moment when the debate had reached its highest volume, that the foundation was going to give a quarter-million dollars to lab supporters to “educate” the public on this matter, you can imagine how that sounded to everyone else. Substitute “brainwash” for “educate,” and you get the idea.

One detail escaped notice, though. The foundation had approved the grant — but not actually given the Biotech Center the money. That would come only when the center formally certified that it was serious about the campaign being a full and fair airing of all pertinent facts. The center had a one-word description of those terms: “unacceptable.”

After all, what’s the point of educating citizens if they don’t come around to your point of view?

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