Opinion: Carolina Beat

CJ Editorial: Our Fourth Branch of Government

Boards and commissions are secretive, unaccountable

The following editorial appeared in the February 2011 edition of Carolina Journal:

In December, Gov. Bev Perdue said she would suggest at least 150 state boards and commissions for consolidation or termination by the 2011 General Assembly. Jan. 25, the day before the legislative session opened, Perdue upped that total to 345 of the 406 executive branch boards.

As advocates of limited, constitutional government, you might think we’d be cheering. Instead, we’re laughing — at Perdue, who’s made a mockery of the entire endeavor. These boards have become a shadowy, convoluted fourth branch of government. Their 4,000-plus members hand out hundreds of millions of dollars a year, fast-track (or shut down) development projects, manage large public institutions, and advise the governor on a host of policy issues. And while the boards are considered part of the executive branch, as many as half the members of nearly 200 boards have been appointed by (and presumably are accountable to) the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem.

This perverse situation poses huge separation of powers concerns — boards both set and administer policy, while maintaining a direct pipeline to their funding sources inside the legislature.

Who’s in charge of these boards, and how are the members accountable to anyone other than the three politicians who appointed them? The people of North Carolina have no say in the way they operate. They operate with scant oversight and minimal transparency.

Problem is, Perdue treated the entire process like an afterthought. The list she provided in January includes a number of essential entities — the Utilities Commission regulates monopolies; the trustees of the UNC and community college campuses govern those schools; the Board of Transportation uses representatives from every region of the state to set transportation priorities.

All of these were on Perdue’s potential chopping block.

On the other hand, she refused to consider some of the state’s primary dens of cronyism and waste. Golden LEAF, the Rural Economic Development Center, and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund should be relegated to the dustbin, their staffs fired, and their revenues returned to the state’s General Fund.

So should every other board or commission with “economic development” in its title. For decades, North Carolina has made the faulty assumption that government’s role is to pick winners and losers in the commercial marketplace. State officials have used economic development as a way to reward the politically connected, and to pad the expense accounts of attorneys and consultants.

The General Assembly should get rid of those boards. Economic development initiatives should be slashed, with the remaining projects managed by the Department of Commerce or the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — cabinet-level agencies that can be watched by the General Assembly, the media, and the public.

Finally, the members of any boards left standing should be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. No legislative appointees. The legislature under Democratic rule created this mess. The new Republican leaders in Raleigh should fix it.