House Speaker Jim Black of Matthews has had a rough couple of weeks. My Carolina Journal colleagues were instrumental in uncovering the existence of up to $20 million tucked away in special legislative funds – discretionary or slush, choose your adjective – which Black and other top North Carolina lawmakers had at their personal disposal.
As Black struggled to explain what was going on — at one point suggesting that at least Mecklenburg County got a good chunk of his fund steered its way — it occurred to me that maybe Black does not get it. And when Black sounded like Richard Nixon, blustering that critics of the funds need to check themselves lest they wind up with a new speaker even less friendly to Charlotte’s interests, I knew Black did not get it.
You cannot explain the use of state money by saying, as Black has, that the projects he funded locally are “worthwhile.” First, as long as we live on planet Earth we will function under the law of scarcity, which means that there are never enough resources to fund all the good things people would like to do. More importantly, however, is the fact that it is not up to Jim Black or Senate leader Marc Basnight to decide which projects are worthwhile. That job is up to the North Carolina General Assembly as a whole.
The very public give-and-take of legislative debate is supposed to vet the various demands on scare state resources and arrive at, in theory, a distribution of state resources that reflects the will of the voters. Maybe. At least that is the goal, and if lawmakers fall short, the voters get to try again with a new crew.
Allowing individual members to dole out cash to favored groups back home, some of which are surprised by the money they get, sucks accountability right out of the process. The only checks you’ll find can be cashed and forget about balances. Further, such Mafioso-style “favors” primarily increase the personal power and prestige of the gifter.
The flip-side of this approach can be seen in Black’s petty treatment of Rep. John Rhodes, a frequent Black critic. Black has made it clear that he will make the people of Cornelius pay for electing a “bomb thrower” like Rhodes. Guess there’s no question about any “worthwhile” project up Cornelius way, then. Raw political power is seldom deployed so bluntly.
And yet it is a comment on the times that Black is viewed by many in Raleigh as an effective politician, credited with building a formidable Democratic machine statewide. But locally a better measure of Black’s effectiveness in office might be his ability, or lack thereof, to get Mecklenburg’s fair share of road building dollars. Raleigh has historically shortchanged the state’s biggest city, a trend that is only continuing with the loss of some $109 million in expected road money.
Improvements to the dangerously gridlocked southern leg of I-485 are set to be pushed further out, as would be actually finishing the Beltway. And a much-needed new interchange at Weddington Road, one that would help relieve the choked Providence Road exit and help keep traffic flowing in and around Matthews, has seen its scheduled completion date slip from 2008 to, well, maybe never.
To anyone dropping in from, say, a modern democratic state, it sure looks like that Black has sold Mecklenburg out to his Raleigh buddies in exchange for control of a nice little cash kitty that primarily boosts his own political power. While tens of millions of dollars in state road money flow eastward toward the sea, Jim Black is content to hand out $50,000 here and $25,000 there and tell everyone how lucky they are to have him.
Don’t you believe it.