Capital Goods - December 2011

File and rank
By Scott Mooneyham

Every year, groups of all shapes and sizes rank state legislators. Liberal advocacy groups put together their lists; conservative advocacy groups compile theirs. There are rankings of the most effective, most business friendly, most consumer friendly, most environmentally friendly and so on.

When legislators make it to or near the top, they typically trumpet the news. (Well, not always. Sometimes the group doing the ranking doesn’t fall into line with the views of a legislators’ constituents.) You can expect former House Speaker Harold Brubaker, a Randolph County Republican, to make some noise about recently being ranked as the most pro-business legislator by the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, a political-analysis group financed by business interests. GOP Rep. George Cleveland of Jacksonville probably told more than a few of the folks back in his district about being ranked the most-conservative legislator by the conservative Civitas Institute.

Lost in the weeds is that these rankings are more than a little subjective. Many are based, in part or whole, on how legislators voted on particular pieces of legislation. That may seem objective, but someone had to come up with those lists of bills that determine what is and isn’t pro-business or pro-environment, conservative or liberal. Sometimes the decisions lead to a little head scratching.

A couple of years ago, I got a call from a lawyer who was doing more than just fingernailing his noggin. He worked with economic developers and companies looking to locate in North Carolina and was exasperated by the FreeEnterprise Foundation interpreting a vote for recruiting-incentives legislation as anti-business. “How could they do that? Do they think we’ll have more business here without them?” he complained.

I’m no fan of incentives, but I could see his point. Many legislators who’d try to move Mount Mitchell for their business constituents have never seen an incentives bill they didn’t like. Then again, some purists see incentives as gaming the free market, rewarding some businesses while handicapping others. In this case, the purists seem to have won. Even so, is that the type of legislation you want determining if you’re considered pro-business?

The FreeEnterprise Foundation isn’t hiding anything, publishing its methodology with its rankings. Executive Director John Rustin says the rankings are based both on legislators’ votes and the opinions of business leaders and lobbyists. To compile its latest list, it sent out more than 400 surveys. Not surprisingly, Republicans fill the top 18 spots among business-friendly legislators in the House and the first 29 in the Senate. (There are 31 Republicans in the Senate.) In the House, Speaker Thom Tillis ranks just behind Brubaker, while Jim Crawford of Oxford, recently named a budget-writing co-chair by the GOP leadership, is the top-ranking Democrat at No. 19. The three highest-ranking state senators fill the top three rankings in that chamber: Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville, President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden and Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville.

As for coming up with that list of business-friendly votes, Rustin says, the group first solicits feedback in its surveys. Then a committee of the organization’s supporters uses that to compile the list, so the legislation should reflect a consensus of movers and shakers in the business world familiar with the issues before the legislature. This past year, there was no shortage of those kinds of bills. Legislation used for the rankings included a handful of votes related to tort reform, changes to environmental regulations and the repeal of a 2007 land-transfer tax. You won’t find many who think that those aren’t part of a pro-business agenda.

But what about legislation putting restrictions on towns and cities that operate their own cable-television and Internet systems? That bill was certainly desired by New York-based Time Warner Cable Inc., which argued that government entities shouldn’t compete against private industry. Opponents had another take: Time Warner wasn’t doing enough in some rural communities to create the kind of broadband infrastructure needed to recruit business. One of those opponents was Sen. Buck Newton, whose eastern district includes Wilson and its high-speed, municipally owned broadband system. He ended up as the lowest-ranked Republican on the list, in part, because he didn’t support the bill.

Funny how where you’re from can sometimes affect whether you see something as pro- or anti-business. There is no denying that legislators fret over these rankings. Rustin, like others involved in compiling these lists, hears from them. “It’s something that folks care about,” he says.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com.