You may have to spend money to make money, but the N.C. Technological Development Authority has taken that notion to ludicrous extremes. Gov. Mike Easley last winter suspended funding for the authority after the state auditor criticized bookkeeping practices and lack of accountability. Now the News & Observer of Raleigh reports that TDA paid a contract lobbyist more than $600,000 during the last three years to compensate him for lavish spending on a trip to Hawaii, chauffeured limousines and high-priced hotel rooms for the Bush inauguration.
But ``Brother' Joe McClees, the lobbyist, didn't stop there. He also docked the state for jellies ($7,000), corn meal ($1,335), seafood, $3,500 and $2,400 for hams - presumably given as gifts. His dubious expense account is on top of a $150,000 annual salary.Since most of that money comes out of taxpayers' pockets, absence of fiscal responsibility and spending oversight make a strong argument for Easley and the General Assembly to terminate the unusual relationship. TDA started out as a state agency and in 1992 became a public-private partnership to promote economic development by investing in new technology companies - a publicly funded venture-capital firm. There have been successes, mainly in the Research Triangle and rural counties, yet hardly enough to justify the state's $19 million in funding, including $4 million last year. TDA functions in a gray area, as a hybrid entity with state money, yet with no long-term guarantees. Unlike most government programs, it must ask the legislature for money every year. That's where McClees enters the picture as a conduit to keep the funding pipeline open. It makes absolutely no sense, however, to extravagantly spend tax dollars to lobby the legislature to ante up more tax dollars.
The TDA board vows to make amends by cutting loose McClees when his contract is up in August and to better scrutinize expenses. Those efforts, unfortunately, are too little, too late. The state is right in wanting to attract entrepreneurial businesses, but it should do it without TDA.
What's more, before plotting a much-needed new course that ensures ethical conduct, the governor should demand a full accounting and reimbursement - even for the corn meal.