Wanted: nonpartisan think tank in capital city

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2016

RALEIGH — Attention, millionaires and billionaires and anyone else with extra money who wants to spend it in a meaningful way in North Carolina.

Raleigh desperately needs a nonpartisan, independent think tank to examine important issues from a neutral perspective and bring some level of clarity to debates dividing this state.

This topic comes to mind often, and did so again as the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled the General Assembly’s voter ID legislation unconstitutional. Over the course of two days, I received countless press releases about the ruling — all from either politicians or conservative or liberal interest groups. Having seen so many news releases over the years from these same senders, I could have almost written them myself.

I didn’t receive a single email from any group that could claim any sort of political neutrality on this issue, and that’s almost always the case.

In other words, the voter ID debate — along with many other important discussions going on in the state capital these days — goes on without substantive input from any organization that could honestly claim political neutrality.

Isn’t that the job of the media? Maybe to some extent. But it’s the media’s job to report on issues fairly, giving both sides an opportunity to make their points. Most media organizations don’t employ trained scientists, economists, tax or education experts either.

That’s where a nonpartisan, independent think tank could serve an important role in informing our politicians and challenging both sides to make decisions in the best interest of all North Carolina’s residents.

North Carolina already has partisan think tanks, like the conservative John Locke Foundation and the liberal NC Policy Watch, among others. They do a good job examining issues, but their opinions are widely known and predictable. Our elected representatives and senators in the General Assembly know this, and my guess is they rarely even read the opinions and research that come from the other side. And they take the research and opinions that come from their side as gospel.

This only serves to divide our legislature even more.

This is where a trusted, independent organization could play a vital role in ensuring that legislators have as much information as possible before them when making important decisions about the future of the state.

Such an organization would offer its research and opinion based on what is best for North Carolina, not what’s best for a certain fraction of society based on political ideology. If nothing more, it would give lawmakers another source to consider in making decisions, one that isn’t tainted by political pressures or donors’ money.

This wouldn’t be easy. To be successful, such a think tank would have to prove over time that it is truly above the political fray. It would have to be transparent about its donors. It would have to hire the right people.

In the end, we could only hope that this think tank would become a trusted source of reliable information for all legislators, regardless of political affiliation.

We could only hope that Republicans and Democrats would see that their respective sides aren’t always right on the complex issues facing our state.

And act accordingly.

Patrick Gannon is the columnist for the Capitol Press Association. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.