RALEIGH Ė Hereís some big news: state officials will soon be allowing North Carolinians to reserve campsites at a state park of their choice, rather than allocating space on a first-come, first-served basis.
Well, okay, maybe itís not big news in and of itself (unless youíre a camping freak). But bear with me for a moment, because I think this little bit of news reflects laudable progress along several important policy fronts.
First, North Carolinians pay more for government than do our peers in most other states, but we donít receive a good return on our money. The John Locke Foundation will soon publish a new study of the issue, explaining and clarifying recent conflicting measurements of state tax burdens. As a preview, however, Iíll just say that one clear finding of our research is that other states do a better job of adopting promising innovations in how government performs its functions. Texas and Florida, in particular, are fast-growing Southern states where government costs are generally lower and recent progress in governmental and economic outcomes has generally been better than North Carolinaís.
While it would be great if North Carolina became a true leader in reform, but Iíll settle for being at least a dutiful follower. South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee have offered campers online and toll-free campsite registration for years. Anything they can do, Tar Heels can do at least as well, if our leaders will just pay attention.
Second, the new campsite-registration system will be operated by a contractor, Infospherix. This is a classic case of a function that private firms are likely to do more effectively than a public-sector agency. Itís heartening to see that despite recent misplaced efforts to use failures in mental-health reform to bash privatization, some state officials understand that contracting services out or even shedding tasks altogether in favor of private action are not inherently bad (or inherently good) ideas. Their success depends on circumstances, intentions, and careful contract management.
Third, rationalizing the system for allocating scarce campsite amenities might well lead state officials to think more broadly and carefully about how best to operate the stateís cultural and recreational services.
After nearly 20 years of studying state budgeting in North Carolina, itís become obvious to me that policymakers have put very little thought into how and why the state offers such services to its residents. If you donít support full funding for every museum, park, historic site, and cultural program the administration proposes, you are insulted as a rube. But itís important to remember that in most cases, those who make the greatest use of state-owned or state-funded museums, symphonies, theaters, parks, and other amenities are either 1) more affluent than the average taxpayer or 2) schoolchildren.
In both cases, the current funding system is highly inefficient and unfair. Because virtually no one argues that affluent families should be subsidized when they camp out or go to the theater, advocates typically emphasize the benefits to the (minority) of users who arenít affluent. But thatís an argument for means-tested assistance, not for direct institutional funding. Ditto for students. If a major function of state cultural amenities such as museums, aquariums, and historic sites is to provide educational opportunities, the most efficient policy would be for those attractions to charge accurate prices at the door. Then, the government would distribute tax dollars to school districts for their discretionary use. Some may choose to patronize the cultural attractions. Others may choose to make different investments. My guess is that proximity to state attractions Ė which are not equally distributed across the state Ė would make a big difference. Thatís a feature, not a flaw. The current system is unfair, because schools benefits in proportion to how close they are to state-funded facilities.
So, to return to the beginning: North Carolina is adopting a more-attractive system for allocate campsites at state parks, a system already in use elsewhere in the region. The system makes effective use of a private vendor. And it sets a precedent for bringing more rationality and fairness to a category of state spending Ė parks, recreational, and cultural amenities Ė that is often characterized by central planning, inequitable subsidy, and superficial thinking.
To me, this all qualifies as big news. But, as should have become obvious by now to longtime readers, Iím a little weird.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.