Politicians put their mark on foundation

A foundation set up to help economically distressed communities has given in to political pressure and chosen a key aide to Gov. Mike Easley to become its next president. The Golden LEAF Foundation, set up by the legislature in 1999 to receive up to $2.3 billion from a national tobacco settlement, has acceded to the desires of Gov. Mike Easley and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight to name Dan Gerlach to the job.

In doing so, the foundation has confirmed fears from both the left and right that the foundation would be susceptible to political influence. If the governor and legislature can dictate who runs the foundation, it can also control how the foundation spends its money. That exposes the foundation to the risk of becoming little more than a political slush fund, its severest critics would argue.

It's important to note that the new president is a widely respected advocate. Mr. Gerlach is smart, savvy, hard-working, quick-witted and focused.

In North Carolina, he previously headed the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, an independent source of reliable information about the state's spending practices and how budgetary choices affect low-income and other residents of the state. More recently he has served as Gov. Easley's senior economic policy adviser, assisting the governor in a growing number of ways, including lobbying the legislature and handling difficult issues with the press and other constituencies.

But Mr. Gerlach may find himself with his hands especially full after pressure from the governor and from Sen. Basnight – widely regarded as among the most powerful legislators in decades – prompted the foundation earlier this summer to postpone its selection of a president to succeed the outgoing Valeria Lee. The board was close to making another choice from among four candidates when board members close to the governor and Sen. Basnight engineered a delay that would have the effect of allowing Mr. Gerlach to help Gov. Easley get his proposals through the short session of the legislature and then freeing him to take the job.

One reason the foundation may have been willing to delay the selection process was a legislative threat to alter the foundation's funding. At least two bills would have changed the foundation's funding basis. Some counties as recently as last year had not gotten any assistance from the foundation. Legislators had expected the approval of more grants directly affecting communities that have lost their tobacco-based economies.

By succumbing to the delay and accepting Gov. Easley's and Sen. Basnight's preferred candidate, the foundation has reinforced a widely-held perception that its spending habits are politically driven and its leadership is answerable to political interests. It's an image the foundation will have to work hard to change – and harder yet to meet the needs of economically distressed communities across the state.