While crafting North Carolina’s recently-passed 2010-11 state budget, state lawmakers lamented the alleged necessity of firing school teachers, cutting back on care for seniors and other “draconian cuts.” In the meantime, however, an organization that has spent millions on projects like the Randy Parton Theatre, the Teapot Museum and bee breeding remains fully funded.
The Golden LEAF Foundation, an organization created and funded by the legislature and whose very existence is dubious at best, has seen its substantial amount of funds remain untouched, even while state budget writers have raided several other state “trust funds” and implemented massive tax hikes in order to balance the state budget.
Golden LEAF receives and disperses half of North Carolina’s revenue from the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) resulting from the 1998 lawsuit filed against the major tobacco manufacturers. The Foundation has assets totaling more than $560 million and receives annual MSA payments of $80 million or more.
This funding arrangement was proposed by then Attorney General Mike Easley (D) and passed by the legislature in 1999. The Golden LEAF board is composed of political appointees including current members appointed by Easley when he was governor. Easley is now under active federal and state investigations for possible illegal activities that occurred while he was in elected office. The current Golden LEAF president was an aide and top budget advisor to Easley.
Over the years, Golden LEAF has funded a variety of wasteful projects. With North Carolina facing at least a $3 billion structural budget deficit next year, observers must ask: Do these projects represent the best use of this pot of state money?
The top ten wasteful Golden LEAF projects include:
- This Ain’t Dollywood
- The Real Inspiration for the “Tea Party” Movement?
- Bottoms Up!
- Buzz Off
- Banjo Boondoggle
- Ships Ahoy!
- Pricey Propaganda
- The Fast and the Furious
- Quit Horsin’ Around
- Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree
In 2006, Golden LEAF granted $399,000 to the City of Roanoke Rapids to assist in “infrastructure improvements” in order to support the Carolina Crossroads Music & Entertainment District – home of the ill-fated Randy Parton Theatre. In its short history, the Theatre has been plagued by lawsuits, ownership changes, and financial losses that have left taxpayers holding the bag.
Golden LEAF decided it a wise investment to grant $380,000 in 2005 to “help fund the pre-development activities for the Sparta Museum.” Yes, the now-infamous Sparta Teapot Museum that garnered national ridicule as an example of government waste was also deemed worthy of Golden LEAF funding. Golden LEAF justified the grant with the laughable claim that a Museum housing “more than 10,000 antique, artist-made and production teapots” will be “a catalyst for revitalization” for the town. The museum was never built.
A $300,000 Golden LEAF grant in 2006 was awarded to Appalachian State University for a “mobile testing laboratory to provide to North Carolina’s wine and grape industry timely on location analysis of grapes and wine.” In other words, a traveling wine tasting vehicle.
And I thought drinking and driving didn’t mix.
Over the past several years, Golden LEAF has provided nearly $350,000 to projects involving bees. Support includes a $94,500 grant in 2004 for the “Save the Bees!” project. The goal of the project was to identify and introduce “mite resistant bees into bee colonies across the state.” Also included was a $164,000 grant in 2005 to “increase the number of honey bee colonies/beekeepers across the state;” and a $65,000 grant in 2009 “to train beekeepers in basic queen bee rearing techniques.”
A $250,000 grant in 2008 was awarded by Golden LEAF to help finance construction of a “performance space inside the historic Cleveland County courthouse.” The renovated courthouse is intended to “serve as a destination hub for travelers to experience the connection between music and the traditions of the Carolina Foothills.” The courthouse will also house the Earl Scruggs Center, featuring “permanent interactive exhibits highlighting Earl Scruggs’ contribution to music.”
In 2005, Golden LEAF provided $145,000 to “support exploration and recovery of artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck – the oldest shipwreck discovered in the state.” The Queen Anne’s Revenge is also notable as being the English pirate Blackbeard’s boat.
Two Golden LEAF grants, one in 2008 and the other in 2010, totaling roughly $325,000 were awarded to UNC-TV, North Carolina’s public television network. The grants funded a series to be aired on UNC-TV entitled “North Carolina Rising,” and featured stories spotlighting various “revitalization efforts” throughout the state. In a blatant conflict of interest, about half of the projects highlighted also happen to be financed by Golden LEAF. The Golden LEAF president was also featured in the show. In short, Golden LEAF grants are funding a television series that praises and supports Golden LEAF’s efforts.
Can anyone say its pledge time at UNC-TV?
Golden LEAF granted $150,000 in 2007 to help finance the “pre-development and planning expenses for the East Coast Drag Racing Hall of Fame Museum, a planned motorsports tourism destination for Vance County.”
Golden LEAF granted a total of $300,000 to the Carolina Horse Park Foundation in Raeford of Hoke County to host “equestrian competitions.” Included were this 2001 grant of $200,000 in general support for the Carolina Horse Park, followed by $50,000 grants in both 2002 and 2004 to assist the Park with hosting “Eventing Championships” in 2003 and 2004.
Somebody alert poor Charlie Brown, the perfect Christmas tree has been found! Two Golden LEAF grants, one in 2007 and one in 2008, totaling $109,000 were awarded “to support a small business development project and branding and marketing initiative for Mitchell County utilizing its designation as the ‘Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree.’” The goal of the marketing initiative was to “create as many as 150 jobs over the next five years.”
In related news, there has been no word on whether the Great Pumpkin will receive Golden LEAF funding.
In 2008, Golden LEAF granted a whopping $100 million to the NC Global Transpark Authority in Kinston. The $100 million was dedicated to building a 500,000 square foot plant for Spirit AeroSystems in which Spirit builds aircraft parts for major airlines like Boeing and Airbus. Landing Spirit was supposed to trigger other aerospace companies to locate to the Global Transpark. Since Spirit signed the deal to come to the Transpark, however, no additional tenants have signed on. Moreover, Spirit is leasing their warehouse from the state government at $100 a year, while the Transpark struggles to pay back $38 million in loans to the state.
In spite of more than $250 million in federal, state and local government subsidies, the Global Transpark continues to be ridiculed due to its noticeable lack of business activity.
Gene Conti, the state transportation secretary and chairman of the Global TransPark Authority recently admitted, "Every year we have an audit done and the auditors come in and say we’re broke and we owe all this money to the state."