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Opinion,State Government,Taxes and Budget

Political Cooperation Isn’t Dead

Mar. 6th, 2012
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RALEIGH – It’s an election year, and both major political parties have an interest in accentuating the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, legislature, and other North Carolina offices.

But as a nonpolitician, I have an interest in promoting a broader understanding of North Carolina government among the general public. To that end, let’s consider a few policy areas where the two major parties have grown closer together, not further apart, over the past couple of years.

For example, for nearly two decades the John Locke Foundation and other fiscal conservatives argued that North Carolina’s state bureaucracy had grown into a costly and confusing mess. Several separate state agencies were responsible for related matters such as financial management, business regulation, and public safety. In our very first alternative state budget, published in 1995, JLF proposed consolidating some of these agencies in order to straighten out lines of political accountability, improve the delivery of public services, and save tax dollars.

In her 2011-13 budget plan, Gov. Bev Perdue did exactly that. For example, she proposed that the separate departments of Correction, Crime Control & Public Safety, and Juvenile Justice be combined into a single Department of Public Safety. She also proposed that the Employment Security Commission become an agency within the Department of Commerce. And she pitched a new Department of Administration and Management to encompass work previously performed in four separate agencies or departments.

The first two ideas made their way into the General Assembly’s final budget, saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

Another area of bipartisan cooperation last year was sentencing reform. Thanks in part to a privately funded project called Judicial Reinvestment, state lawmakers and the Perdue administration crafted a plan to improve the supervision of paroled North Carolina felons and make better use of incentives and drug-treatment programs to manage nonviolent offenders.

Both liberals and conservatives saw the resulting Judicial Reinvestment Act as a step towards spending public dollars more wisely while reducing recidivism in North Carolina’s criminal-justice system. The bill drew broad bipartisan support and became law, potentially saving North Carolina taxpayers nearly $300 million over the next few years in lower operating and capital costs for prison beds.

More generally, while the differences between Gov. Perdue’s budget proposal and what the Republican-led General Assembly eventually enacted have become political fodder, what is often missed is that the two budgets weren’t really all that different in their broad outlines.

Perdue’s budget held General Fund spending 4 percent below the “current services” baseline for FY 2011-12, while reimposing a sales-tax increase from 2009 that was about to expire. The budget that finally passed over the governor’s veto held General Fund spending 6 percent below the baseline and let the sales-tax hike expire as scheduled.

As I have previously observed, the difference between the two budgets in education spending was even smaller – less than 1 percent in FY 2011-12, when correctly measured.

None of which is to suggest that there aren’t important philosophical differences between North Carolina Democrats and Republicans. We’ll be hearing a lot about them over the coming. But it’s important to remember that despite all the hoopla and angst, the 2011 legislative session featured many instances of bipartisan cooperation, not just on fiscal matters but also on such issues as education policy and annexation reform.

If Pat McCrory is elected governor and the GOP retains control of the state legislature this fall, that won’t be the end of Democratic participation in major policy initiatives in 2013 and beyond. And if Democrats win either the gubernatorial race or one of the legislative chambers or both, that won’t be the end of Republican participation in major policy initiatives in 2013 and beyond.

Just as it is possible to be political rivals without being personal enemies, it is also possible to be partisan without being uncooperative. On matters of mutual interest, North Carolina politicians still have the capacity to act in concert, as the 2011 session showed.

Now that I think about it, perhaps the better musical analogy would be a jazz improvisation.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.