Rob Christensen

Former House Speaker Jim Black’s law finds new life

Former Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives Jim Black, right, and his attorney Ken Bell are shown in a file photo from Black's sentencing hearing on Tuesday, July 31, 2007.
Former Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives Jim Black, right, and his attorney Ken Bell are shown in a file photo from Black's sentencing hearing on Tuesday, July 31, 2007. Staff file photo

It is not much of a stretch to say that a major reason the Republicans rule the roost in Raleigh today is because of the scandal involving Democratic House Speaker Jim Black and the chiropractors.

Black, a Charlotte optometrist, served three years in prison, from 2007 to 2010, for taking $25,000 in cash and a $4,000 check in illegal campaign contributions from three chiropractors to push through legislation favorable to their profession.

Black helped get a law passed in 2005 guaranteeing that insurance co-payments for chiropractors would be on a par with primary care physicians.

What most people remember about the affair is an episode in the bathroom in the IHOP in Salisbury. There, Black gave some of the chiropractor money to then-state Rep. Michael Decker, who had switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party, allowing Black to form a coalition government with moderate Republican Richard Morgan as co-speaker.

The scandal not only ended the career of Black, quite possibly the most powerful House speaker in North Carolina history, but it enabled Republicans to run as reformers.

The GOP put up yard signs across the state featuring a photograph of Black and a message that read “House for Sale.” The Republican rallying cry became “a culture of scandal.”

Embarrassed Democrats repealed the chiropractor law in 2007.

Democratic Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville called it “a special provision bought and paid for by bribery.” Republican Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex said “it repeals a mandate that none of us here knew was purchased for cash.”

The scandal, followed by months of disclosures surrounding Gov. Mike Easley, was a major factor in the Republicans winning control of the legislature in 2010 – a victory they have cemented by drawing strongly Republican-leaning districts shortly after taking office.

The parties may have changed, but the specter of Jim Black rose on Jones Street the other day. The Republican-controlled House voted 68 to 43 on April 29 to pass the chiropractors’ bill again in a bipartisan vote. The measure now goes to the Senate.

Over the table

There are some major differences this time. The bill is being handled transparently, not being slipped into a budget bill as it was 10 years ago. As far as we know, there is no illegal money involved as there was in 2005.

But there is still plenty of political money sloshing around. To help grease the bill through the legislature, the chiropractors’ political committee contributed at least $88,000 in contributions to lawmakers during the last election cycle, according to campaign reports filed with the State Board of Elections.

Rep. Justin Burr, the bill’s chief sponsor, received $4,000 from the chiropractors. The Republican Senate Caucus received $5,500. The Democratic Senate Caucus $3,500. Senate leader Phil Berger’s committee got $5,750, and House Speaker Tim Moore’s committee received $5,500. The House Republican Caucus received $5,500 and the House Democratic Caucus received $2,500.

The co-chairman of the House Insurance Committee, Rep. Mitchell Setzer, received $2,500, according to reports. His committee counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Tom Apodaca, received $2,000.

I mention the chiropractors, not because I think this is bad legislation. I am a long-time user of chiropractors. Nor do I suggest there is anything untoward going on here, or that the chiropractors are operating any differently from any of the dozens of other interest groups with business before the legislature.

But there is a fine line between $29,000 given to Black under the table a decade ago, and the $88,000 given to lawmakers over the the table recently. Both are aspects of transactional politics, where substantial amounts of money are given to elected officials with some assumption that it will result in laws being passed.

It is the way American politics operates today.

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack