RALEIGH — Nearly two years ago, Gov. Bev Perdue started discussing a subject that in recent years had become taboo in Raleigh: downsizing state boards and commissions.
More than 400 of these bodies lurk in the executive branch of state government, with more than 4,000 appointed members. They employ hundreds of full-time and part-time state workers, and they oversee billions of tax dollars and implement hundreds of state regulations.
Many of them are not accountable to the public, enjoy little oversight, and serve no legitimate public purpose.
Senate Bill 851, introduced near the end of the General Assembly’s short session, would have taken a whack a several dozen boards and commissions. This would have been a welcome development. But a wrecking ball is what we need.
The boards and commissions may be part of the executive branch, though the vast majority of them include members who are appointed by the speaker of the House or the Senate president pro tem. It’s not unusual for most members of these panels to be legislative appointments.
For those boards setting state policy, or handing out public funding, this is a nightmare for responsible governance, because the boards are not accountable to anyone other than the people who appointed them. Boards and commissions allow elected officials — the governor and members of the General Assembly — to wield power and disburse money with scant oversight and little responsibility to the public. Moreover, many boards tend to be landing spots for campaign contributors or other allies of the politicians who appoint the members.
On the plus side, S.B. 851 eliminated 41 boards and commissions with 673 appointed members. They included the North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame Board of Directors, the Secretary of State’s Advisory Council on Electronic Notary Standards, the Commission of Anatomy, and two of the three boards with oversight of the state’s art museum. Three other boards examining public health issues (brain injuries, child fatalities, and heart disease) would go out of existence in three years.
The bill also has a few shortcomings. Nearly three dozen other boards would continue — albeit with nearly half their membership slots eliminated. So far, so good. In shrinking the boards, however, the bill would reduce the number of appointments the governor makes more than it does the members picked by the General Assembly, giving the legislature even more leverage on these bodies.
This is exactly backward. Members of executive-branch boards and commissions should be appointed by the governor. The General Assembly could give itself the authority to confirm or reject nominations, as it does with the state’s Utilities Commission.
But our state constitution places the power to execute the laws firmly in the hands of the executive branch, not in hybrid entities that answer to no one in particular.
S.B. 851 didn’t get off the ground in the current session, so there’s a chance to revisit boards and commissions next year. Ending legislative appointments to executive-branch boards should be part of any reform. Here are a few more suggestions to improve their governance:
• Abolish every economic development board and any other similar body that distributes public funding. Spending tax dollars is the General Assembly’s job. Outfits like Golden LEAF, the Rural Center, and the regional economic development boards are using public money to pay for local projects and underwrite corporate welfare. If those projects are worth funding, they’re worth subjecting to a public vote in the General Assembly, where lawmakers will have to weigh their importance against the value of competing projects.
• Get rid of most occupational licensing boards. The vast majority of them do not protect public health or safety. They do give those already working in an industry the ability to keep newcomers out. They also impose formal education and credentialing requirements that can place the cost of starting a business out of reach for many would-be practitioners. Consumers are savvy enough to decide whether to hire locksmiths, landscaping contractors, nutritionists, and athletic trainers, among others. A state credential is not necessary for these entrepreneurs to offer their services.
• Shrink the UNC Board of Governors, and let voters elect the members. Currently, the UNC Board of Governors has 32 members — all picked by the legislative leadership. The BOG also picks the majority of the board members of each campus. More than half of the BOG current members have connections to UNC-Chapel Hill. The board is unwieldy, and campuses outside Chapel Hill can be justified in thinking they’re considered by the board as afterthoughts. (See note at end.)
Meantime, several states with statewide public university systems let voters elect regents who represent distinct geographic areas (such as congressional districts), the entire state, or some combination. Every region of the state is represented. The regents set policy for the entire system, while individual campuses are run by boards appointed by the governor. Such a setup would offer more accountability to the public and independence from capital politicking.
S.B. 851 was a serious if flawed attempt to confront the rapid growth of unaccountable boards and commissions that have spread like wildfire across North Carolina over the past generation. Let’s hope it serves as the first foray into a successful downsizing and revamping of the commission system.
The original version of this story incorrectly stated that some members of the UNC Board of Governors are appointed by the governor.