There’s been a lot written about this year’s state budget, and there will be more. That’s what happens when you’re dealing with a 438-page bill allocating $24 billion. A lot of money, a lot of competing interests, a lot of detail.  

I looked at local government allocations in the budget previously, and it comes to tens of millions of dollars. In June, I questioned many of those grants, writing … “a library here, a museum there, and a park shelter somewhere else add up to real money that could be used for higher-priority areas or returned to taxpayers in the form of lower taxes.”  

But until recently, there was one point I missed. The budget allocates $5.775 million for downtown revitalization projects in the form of 72 distinct grants to rural North Carolina communities. Most of these go to cities or towns; three go to counties; and two, mysteriously, go to unincorporated communities. I’ll leave aside the question about who even administers a grant to an unincorporated community, since there is no mayor or city council.   

My bigger question is this: Should we really be spending nearly six million dollars on this?
When I saw this in the budget, I assumed there was some sort of application process. I figured these cities had gone to the Rural Economic Development Division of the Department of Commerce with proposals for park benches or building refurbishment or water fountains or something.  But then I read a piece in the News & Observer and realized it was even worse than I thought.  

The communities hadn’t asked for the money.  Some didn’t even know it was coming. And they didn’t all have lists of projects for which they’d asked for state help. It was more like, “Surprise! Here’s tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money. Have fun!”  

But don’t worry, came the response from the legislature.  Nelson Dollar, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said, “I don’t know of any community that doesn’t have some sort of project or set of projects that they could use some extra funding for. I’m sure those counties will work with those communities and be able to put those funds towards the appropriate purposes.” 

Don’t get me wrong. The budget passed in June isn’t all bad. There are a number of areas in for which legislators should be applauded. But this one doesn’t pass the smell test. How can it be right to hand out grants arbitrarily to communities with the expectation they’ll find good projects to which they can direct the funds? It might be a nice thing to do for friends and family if you unexpectedly inherited a large sum of money, but that’s not what’s going on here.  

The legislature doesn’t spend its own money. It spends our money. It all comes from taxes paid by workers, employers, business owners, homeowners, renters, and consumers. It’s all of us. And when they take that money, they have a responsibility to spend it well, not just hand it out for fun to a few lucky communities.  

So if we had an extra $6 million sitting around, maybe we should have given it back to the taxpayers, the people from whom it was taken in the first place. I don’t doubt worthy projects exist in all of these 72 communities. I’m willing to assume that every last dime will be spent on good projects that will improve the quality of life for people living in those places. But even so, that money with which the legislature decided to be so generous didn’t belong to the government. It was mine and yours and every other North Carolinian’s. And I want it back.