If you miss a deadline, there’s a penalty.

That’s a part of life for everyone… except for the government.

Most of us learned that lesson years ago: If you pay a bill late, there’s a fee. If you miss a deadline at work, you have a problem with your coworkers. If you miss a government deadline, like filing your taxes or renewing your driver’s license, there’s a consequence for it. Funny enough, it doesn’t seem to work the same way on the government’s side. Unless policymakers create clear guidelines, the government is just about the only place where deadlines don’t matter.

In North Carolina, a group of legislators led by Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, has introduced a bill (H332) to turn the tables on the bureaucracy with real-world deadlines, real consequences, and certainty for businesses.

Rep. Zenger and his allies are starting with one of the most headache-causing parts of the bureaucracy: building permits.

Here’s how their idea works. Under this legislation, the state establishes a deadline — 21 days — by which building permits have to be reviewed and given a decision by the local government. If 21 days isn’t enough time for them, two things happen. First, the applicant has the right to take the plan to a third-party reviewer instead. That’s a carrot and a stick solution — the third-party reviewer would come from a pool of qualified code-enforcement officials or professional engineers or architects. Having this option relieves the pressure on the local government by helping with the overflow demand, while providing more predictability for timing on the builders’ side (and their clients).

Second, in the case where the overflow option is necessary, the applicant receives a refund of their permit application fees. Fair’s fair: If the municipality doesn’t get its work done before the deadline, then it doesn’t get to collect the fee for the work itself.

In basketball, each team has a “shot clock” that forces them to take action and move the game forward. There’s a real consequence for a shot-clock violation — loss of possession and an advantage for the other team.

In bureaucracy, a 21-day deadline is a reasonable “shot clock” to move a project along. The consequences for a violation are reasonable, too — the loss of the fee that the government charges for the work, and recourse for the applicant to move forward with the project.

With Rep. Zenger’s legislation, the advantage applies to the whole state — a stronger housing market for North Carolina, a more efficient and effective government, and a stronger economy that lifts all boats.

The strategy is seeing success in other states

This type of reform is already off to a booming start — and rave reviews — elsewhere in the country.

In Florida, a similar reform has been at work since 2021. Applications for single-family home permits are given a set number of days to review and respond to building permit applications, along with a penalty if the “shot clock” is violated. Under their system, 10% of the application fee is refunded for every business day until the application is processed.

The results have been clear to see. In the first year of Florida’s reformed permitting process, new building permits jumped 30% over the previous year — two-thirds higher than the national average. 

And something incredible happened with the application process: the deadline pushed the bureaucracy to move faster. Before the reform, one Florida county processed less than 50% of applications within 30 days. After the reform, that rate jumped to 100%. In another city, fewer than half of permit applications were processed within 30 days — it jumped to more than 80% after the reform.

Reform will relieve NC housing crunch

North Carolinians shouldn’t have to wait. They deserve a permitting process that moves at the speed of life, not an economy that drags at the pace of bureaucracy.

The housing crunch is the perfect place to start.

Over the last decade, North Carolina’s population has grown by nearly 10%, well above the national average and more than all of its neighboring states but one. In the past year alone, both the Charlotte and Raleigh areas are in the top 10 nationally for total population growth.

Yet North Carolina ranks in the bottom half of states for housing affordability, and new construction hasn’t been able to keep up with the rising demand. Incorporating a shot clock with consequences is a real-world way to help the supply for housing keep up with growth.

Deadlines work, and so do consequences. It’s time the government learned that lesson as well.

I commend Rep. Zenger for introducing this bill, and the legislature for their attention and quick action. North Carolina deserves a bureaucracy that lives by real-world deadlines and real consequences. After all, the clock is ticking.