There’s at least one irritating occupational hazard tied to working for a think tank that promotes free markets and limited constitutional government. Too many people assume that the job involves constant aping of Republican Party talking points.


It’s nice when a high-profile Democrat puts forward ideas that deserve praise. Supporting those ideas helps this analyst battle misconceptions about his role.

Such is the case with a column that appeared in the Jan. 8 print edition of Raleigh’s News and Observer. The top Democrat in the state House, Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham, detailed concerns about no-bid contracts written into the most recent state budget.

One cannot be certain that Reives wrote the headline: “These state contracts are wasting millions of your NC tax dollars.” It’s also unclear whether the headline is true. Reives’ column doesn’t actually offer an argument that no-bid contracts waste money.

He does make a strong case that the process that produced no-bid contracts needs a fix.

Reives labels the crafting of a state budget as the General Assembly’s “most important duty.” The document should “ensure a well-functioning state government and a good quality of life for our people,” he writes.

The quality-of-life promise seems like a stretch, but no matter. Reives hits his mark with the next sentence.

“Unfortunately, this process is often shrouded in secrecy,” he argues. “A small number of legislators have massive sway in determining which projects get funded, and at what level. That opens the door to some unsavory practices.”

He’s right.

Reives deserves credit for avoiding an easy partisan jab. Republicans led the most recent budget process, as they have since 2011. The Democratic leader could have pinged them for their secrecy. By avoiding a purely partisan critique, he does not need to admit that his Democratic predecessors conducted most budget business behind closed doors during the decades when they ran the General Assembly.

The column next takes aim at “millions of dollars” in no-bid contracts. “Instead of opening up a competitive bidding process, where the best applicant gets chosen, some legislators have dictated to state agencies a specific company that they must use to provide a particular service,” Reives explains.

He focuses specifically on two education-related contracts awarded to vendors named MyScholar and Failure Free Reading. They aren’t alone. “The majority of the no-bid contracts in the budget, nearly $44 million out of $64 million total,” target the Department of Public Instruction. “These arrangements deserve greater scrutiny not just from legislators but from the media and the general public,” Reives argues.

I’ll second that motion.

“It is our duty as legislators to be good stewards of your tax dollars, and by investing millions of dollars in contracts that are hand-picked by a few people, we are falling short of that responsibility,” Reives adds.

That’s true, although this observer would extend that criticism to contracts “hand-picked” by bureaucrats as well. There’s nothing about employment with a state government agency that makes a person any wiser. Nor is a state worker less prone to error or corruption. Elected officials have more direct accountability for misuse of “your tax dollars,” as long as people know who made decisions about how money is spent.

More sunlight for state government contracts makes sense, regardless of who chooses vendors.

Reives hurts his case by pairing legitimate transparency concerns with a claim that “North Carolina continues to shortchange public schools and teachers.” He laments “sweetheart deals”  that lawmakers make while “teachers struggle to make ends meet.”

Check out the actual facts and figures of North Carolina’s education funding. You’ll find much more evidence of regular spending growth than Reives admits. Plenty of dollars flow into public schools.

Yet the Democratic legislative leader’s false note does not detract much from his central message. He’s right to suggest, “The start of a new year is a perfect opportunity for us to take stock on how we can improve as legislators.”

“Trust in government is at a low point, and I believe that more accountability in how state dollars are spent is a good way to restore some of that trust,” Reives argues.

He cites interest in “new measures that ensure proper oversight of these contracts, such as requiring approval from the Council of State. When no-bid contracts are enacted, we should have deliberate oversight from the General Assembly and from independent agencies like the Office of the State Auditor.”

Reives might be happy to learn that my colleagues at the John Locke Foundation are working toward the same goal. They are crafting reforms related to legislative transparency and accountability. Perhaps we can win his support for those ideas in the year ahead.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.