RALEIGH -- This week, the North Carolina House took a Senate bill authorizing an excessive amount of new debt for UNC projects ($240 million) -- and proceeded to jack up the price (to $338 million). Not to be outdone, the North Carolina Senate on Wednesday took up a House bill giving Gov. Mike Easley $20 million in "walking-around money" for economic incentives -- and proceeded to double the cost by adding a $20 million grant for a private, but politically connected, nonprofit.
I gather that this is "Stick It to the Taxpayers Week" at the General Assembly. I wish someone would have told me ahead of time so I could avoid eating things likely to aggravate my rapidly developing ulcer.
This is one of the situations -- increasingly common down at the Legislative Building in Raleigh -- where the temptation is to grab the closest available lawmaker and give him or her a good shake. "Are you thinking at all about what you're doing?" the question would be. The answer would involve repeating phrases such as "job creation" and "everyone's doing it" and "we're getting things done in a bipartisan manner."
I can't think of a polite term to use to describe an afternoon of voting to take $40 million away from the North Carolinians who earned it and then to bestow it on a few politically connected institutions. These include the chosen few of the corporate world that will be able to tap the governor's discretionary kitty, called the One North Carolina Fund, as well as an organization (the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center) created by Democrats out of power during the 1980s who were trying to find ways to route state dollars away from the Republican heathen then running the Jim Martin administration.
Again, there are names that aptly describe the Senate's funding decision here, but they're not suitable for a family newspaper. There was no serious analysis of what influences state economic growth, no serious probing into how the $20 million in rural-development funding would be expended, no sense of proportion or priority. All this at a time when there are truly some legitimate spending priorities unmet by current budgets, such as the repair of state buildings. All this at a time when the single-best thing North Carolina could do to improve its economic climate and attract jobs would be to cut taxes -- and at a time when the second-best option might well be to use any spare change to reduce the diversion of funds out of the state's highway funds so desperately needed construction and maintenance projects can be completed.
The Senate vote was 28-16. It wasn't close. Is this an accurate reading of our lawmakers' sentiments? So most senators truly believe that these choices represent the priorities that the taxpayers of North Carolina would set? Do they truly believe that the taxpayers want their money doled out to big businesses and politically connected nonprofits rather than used to fund core public services or refunded in the form of tax relief?
Such is the predictable work product from a political class that is staying longer and longer in the state capital, supping and chatting to a larger degree only with political operators and bureaucrats, and growing increasingly distant from their constituents. Oh, sweet gridlock, where did you go?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.