Art Pope, the governor’s budget director, is advocating a continuation of North Carolina’s film incentive program.

But a battery of conservative organizations with close ties to Pope are leading the charge to kill the film incentive program.

The politics surrounding film incentives is one of the intriguing subplots of the current legislation session.

North Carolina’s current program gives TV and film production companies a 25 percent refund – capped at $20 million – on money they spend in the state. Companies must spend at least $250,000 to be eligible. The incentives sunset at the end of the year.

Some of the major productions that have received rebates include NBC’s “Revolution” ($14.2 million) and CBS’ “Under the Dome” ($8.3 million.)

Gov. Pat McCrory proposed extending the tax credit with some major modifications – replacing the 25 percent rebate with several separate tax exemptions and credits for expenses. He would also up the amount production companies have to spend to $1 million and cap the state’s payout at $6 million. The plan was part of his proposed budget, which was prepared by Pope and submitted by the governor to the legislature.

But to describe Pope only as budget director, is as inadequate as describing Hillary Clinton as a former first lady.

‘Sweetheart deal’

Pope, a wealthy Raleigh retail executive, former state legislator, and conservative donor, was instrumental in creating and financing – along with his family foundation – the two think tanks that are leading the charge against the film incentives: the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute.

The Civitas Institute called the film incentives measure the “Bad Bill of the Week” and labeled it: a “Handout to Hollywood Cronies.”

The Locke Foundation called it a “sweetheart deal.”

Americans for Prosperity, the national group started by the Koch Brothers, and on whose national board Pope recently served, has been running radio ads on stations in Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington against film incentives.

“If you lost $45 million would you consider it a good investment?” asks a woman in the radio ad, citing a legislative report on the program’s costs. “Tell Raleigh to put N.C. first, not Hollywood producers. Stop the Hollywood handout.”

Program in trouble

Sweetheart deal? Hollywood cronies? Rather harsh, I think. I’ve always thought that Pope was a Main Street guy who ran discount stores in small Southern towns. How fast your friends turn on you when you go into government work.

I asked Pope whether he didn’t find himself in a bit of a sticky wicket.

“I am not in the least bit of an awkward position,” Pope replied in an email. “As a member of Governor McCrory’s administration, I support and implement Governor McCrory’s decisions. The Locke Foundation, Civitas and AFP have always spoken for themselves, respectively, not me. At times they have disagreed with each other or with me on specific issues. That will always be the case.”

Whether because of the barrage of opposition from conservative groups or not, I don’t know, but McCrory’s film incentive program is in trouble in the legislature.

If you assume, as I do, that Pope could have turned off the barrage of opposition with a phone call, McCrory has to wonder what role his budget chief played in the film incentives debate. At the very least, we are entering a gray area where it is difficult to see distinct lines between government public policy and advocacy.

(Full disclosure. Last year, I signed a contract as co-producer with a major Hollywood producer for a movie that may be made in North Carolina. The company has not requested or received any state incentives. The project is stalled.)

By Rob Christensen