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John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column

Leaders Defiantly Defend the Indefensible

Mar. 25th, 2005
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RALEIGH – In the past couple of weeks, leaders of the North Carolina legislature have faced severe criticism from fellow lawmakers, think tankers, and the news media for their questionable handling of so-called “discretionary funds” within state government. For the most part, the leaders’ response has been surprisingly – and often quite disastrously – defiant.

Asked about his role in a secret scheme to fund local projects requested by select legislators, and in one case to fund a state job for a former legislator instrumental in delivering him the reins of power in Raleigh, House Speaker Jim Black dismissed his critics as pests and one, a fellow Mecklenburg County lawmaker, as mentally ill. “I don’t see anything as that bad wrong,” Black said of the pork-barrel accounts, which in various agencies totaled more than $20 million last year.

Asked about his use of millions of taxpayer dollars to give Republican allies nice photo ops in the midst of their primaries against conservative challengers last year, former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan admitted the political tactics involved – and added, “so what?”

Rep. Debbie Clary, a Republican and former appropriations co-chair, said that she and other key lawmakers deserved prime access to the discretionary funds as “rewards” for their long hours. “I don’t see anything wrong with that,” she insisted. Sen. David Weinstein of Lumberton, who secured $25,000 for a local museum in his district, also put it bluntly: “I see no problem with it whatsoever.”

I scarcely know where to begin. For one thing, if North Carolina’s state budget had tens of millions of dollars last year to toss around at senior centers, museums, welcome centers, and the like, what was all that talk about a big budget deficit? Why did taxpayers have to pay higher taxes and see their highway funds diverted? They were told it was to “save education,” but in part it was to finance these lower-priority items.

The issue of process is even more important. We have laws and constitutions for a reason. They are rules that protect both the politicians and the taxpayers from abuse of power, conflict of interest, and general confusion. If a handful of leaders decides to circumvent the rules, because they are inconvenient, it sets a horrible precedent.

Legally, one problem with the latest round of pork-barrel spending is that some of the projects had been previously considered but not included in the final state budget. The General Assembly as a whole, acting as elected representatives of the taxpayers of North Carolina, had deemed these projects not as pressing enough to deserve funding last year. For legislative leaders to then route money to these projects anyway appears to be in violation of statute and inconsistent with the basic principles of representative government.

As for the state constitution, it provides (as does its federal counterpart) for a separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. This is no abstract item on a civics exam. As John Locke himself and other early philosophers of political liberalism observed, the separation of powers helps to ensure that government authority isn’t misused or vested in too few hands.

The General Assembly enacts the state government’s budget. It sets taxes and fees, authorizes programs, and appropriate funds to state agencies in the executive branch to implement these programs. If it wishes, the legislature can specify in the budget bill specific local or nonprofit recipients of state tax dollars (though this is usually inadvisable).

But once the budget is enacted, the executive branch becomes the administrator of the funds. It decides whom it will employ. It determines individual eligibility for funds. For funds not tied to particular recipients, it operates a competitive grant process to ensure that the projects enjoying the greatest chance of success or the largest bang for the buck are the ones that get funded.

Legislative leaders and their allies have no legitimate role to play in this executive-branch function. They should not be involved in hiring or firing employees. They should not be exercising “discretion” in who gets state grants. When this rule is violated, as has happened in the present case, corruption ensues. Projects get funded to boost legislators right before Election Day. They get funded to pay off political supporters. Groups in which state legislators are personally involved get funded. Projects get funded even though they submit no formal application and have no concrete plans for using tax dollars.

Sen. Weinstein may say “no problem.” Rep. Morgan may ask, “so what?” But I think most North Carolinians know a royal mess when they see one – with both “royal” and “mess” being applicable terms.

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Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, publisher of Carolina Journal.com, and host of the statewide program “Carolina Journal Radio.”