Poll: Widespread Concern About Corruption, Corporate Influence in North Carolina

March 8, 2021

Executive Summary:

  • Two-thirds of North Carolinians believe corruption in state government is a “major problem”
  • 4 in 5 believe that large corporations wield too much power in the legislature
  • Large majorities support higher minimum wages and repealing the ban on municipal broadband

Over the last decade of Republican rule in the North Carolina state legislature, corruption scandals have become a more and more frequent feature of state political news. News about bribery, embezzlement, influence-peddling and more mundane self-dealing like reimbursement “double-dipping” have sadly become commonplace. A time when accepting a single $1,600 helicopter ride from a supporter was a major scandal for Democratic Gov. Mike Easley seems downright quaint today.

Yet the latest Carolina Forward poll shows that large majorities of North Carolinians seem to have noticed the mounting corruption in Raleigh, and don’t like what they see. By a whopping 46-point margin, North Carolinians said that they see corruption in state government as a “major problem.” In a hint as to where that corruption lies, an even larger number – fully 80% – said that “large corporations have too much power in the state legislature.”

The underlying dynamics of these findings suggest a remarkable alignment in sentiment across political groups. 79% of both Republicans and Trump voters, as well as 65% of Independents and 58% of Democrats, see corruption as a “major” issue. This suggests a lot of dissension in the base for the GOP.

There are very few issues on which more voters can agree than on the malign influence of big corporations. In another extraordinary alignment, virtually equal numbers of Trump and Biden voters – 80% and 79%, respectively – agree that “large corporations have too much power in the state legislature.” Across Democrats (81%), Republicans (76%) and Independents (82%), all constituencies agreed that real influence in the legislature has shifted too far away from voters and towards corporate interests.

North Carolinians appear to have noticed the impact of big corporate involvement in North Carolina legislative races. Duke Energy and the NC Chamber of Commerce, as just one example, are widely rumored to have spent over $10 million between them in the 2020 cycle through dark-money vehicles to run ads against Democrats. The precise figure is not known, because, of course, the whole purpose of dark-money groups is to conceal who is behind them. (We have the Supreme Court and Citizens United to thank for that.)

By a significant margin (53% to 40%), North Carolinians support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, which is also the legal minimum in North Carolina as well. The minimum wage has not been changed in over a decade. An even greater number of poll respondents, 58% to 32%, also agree that local governments in North Carolina should be allowed to set higher minimum wages in their own jurisdictions.

The minimum wage is an issue of enormous importance to low-wage workers in North Carolina. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 82,000 North Carolina workers earn the minimum wage or less. Many of these are the very “essential workers” whose labor has made society function even before the COVID pandemic: agricultural workers, for example, as well as grocery, retail, logistics and contingent labor, just to name a few. These are not just teenagers with summer jobs. Over half of minimum wage workers are over 25, and almost 30% are aged 35-70. These workers are much more likely to be female, and disproportionately likely to be non-white.

The question of whether local governments in North Carolina have the authority again to set their own local minimum wages is very unclear. Since the sunsetting of the compromise bill that repealed 2016’s disastrous HB 2, local governments have the authority once again to regulate some private employment practices. North Carolina’s state constitution itself is vague on the subject of what authority, exactly, it allows local governments to exercise. Clearly, legislators did believe that local governments possessed the authority to set local minimum wages when they wrote HB-142 (the HB-2 repeal bill), which included provisions specifically barring localities from regulating local wages. Since HB-142 is no longer in effect, it stands to reason that localities once again have this authority. But any attempt to exercise it would almost certainly be settled in court.

End the Ban on Municipal Broadband

The 2011 ban on municipal broadband, which Republicans passed in their first session in control of the state legislature, is extremely unpopular. By a 3-to-1 margin (53% to 18%), respondents said that they favored local governments having the authority to operate their own broadband networks as a utility service.

As we’ve written about before, the now-perennial performance of concern for broadband access by legislative leaders is a bad joke played on North Carolina. Lifting the 2011 ban would be, by far, the easiest and most taxpayer-friendly way of expanding broadband access in North Carolina. Yet the legislature, in deference to cable company lobbyists, has instead come up with a lot of complicated, expensive and inefficient alternative approaches; all of which, by coincidence, happen to involve giving away millions in taxpayer money to cable companies. (See that poll section on “big corporate influence” again.)

We also polled support for North Carolina’s open shop law, also known as “right to work” – a law, currently on the books in 27 states, that prohibits unionized workplaces from requiring employee membership in that union. Open shop laws greatly hinder worker unionization, because it allows employees who do not join (and pay dues to) unions to enjoy benefits negotiated by them through collective bargaining. It should come as no surprise that large corporations are strong supporters of open shop laws, because they are strongly opposed to unions; yet states and industries with strong unions also have higher than average wages, benefits and working conditions. North Carolinians themselves seem very split on the issue, with roughly equal numbers on either side and almost as many unsure. 39% of respondents opposed changing North Carolina’s “right to work” law, while 36% supported doing so, and 25% were unsure.

Our main takeaway from this poll is that there is a deep well of dissatisfaction in North Carolina with its current political leadership. North Carolinians think their state government is corrupt and out-of-touch with their lived realities – and they’re not wrong. With the legislature so gerrymandered that the vast majority of legislators never face meaningful competition, there is little fear of voter accountability, and the leadership can take its cues exclusively from big donors and lobbyists. How long will voters tolerate it?

Methodology: The sample size for the survey is 911 North Carolina residents and the margin of error was +/- 3.2%. The survey was conducted February 25-26th by Public Policy Polling.

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