One of the few things other than opposition to the lottery that has united progressive and conservative policy advocates in recent years is the call for changes in the way our government works.
That’s the core mission of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, which has led the efforts in the last two sessions to strengthen state regulation of lobbying and campaign fundraising, the establishment of an independent ethics commission, and changes in the legislative process.
There is still plenty of work to do in each area, but there has been progress, especially on the first two fronts. It is now more difficult for lobbyists to wine and legislators when they are in Raleigh, the State Ethics Commission is up and running and already a handful of appointees to public boards and commission are stepping down because of problems with their disclosure of their economic interests.
Opening up the legislative process is a much tougher sell because legislative rules and procedures are considered an arcane matter, followed mostly by Raleigh insiders and watchdog types.
House Speaker Joe Hackney certainly ran a more open House this session than his predecessor Jim Black, but vestiges of the Black era remain and so do many of the attitudes that make reforms difficult.
It is hard to think of a better example of the problem than Thursday’s front-page story in the Raleigh News & Observer detailing a provision in the state budget that establishes 20 annual scholarships at the state’s ten historically black colleges and universities, both public and private.
The story points out that it means state taxpayer dollars will pay directly for athletic scholarships for the first time. College booster clubs usually pick up the tab, though a special provision in the budget a few years ago provides in-state tuition for out-of-state athletes, which amounts to a windfall for the big booster clubs at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State.
The House voted to repeal that provision this past session but the Senate did not take it up.
The policy decision to provide public money for athletic scholarships deserves public debate, but that never happened. That’s the nature of special provisions in the budget and why some lawmakers are so fond of them, they circumvent the normal legislative process and public scrutiny.
Special provisions are part of Jim Black’s legacy. He slipped one in the budget a few years ago to help chiropractors. Black has admitted accepting cash payments from three chiropractors in restaurant bathrooms.
Lawmakers repealed that provision because of the way it was passed, not on the merits of the policy change. A provision by Black creating a program for free eye exams was also repealed a few years ago. The lottery was passed using the special provision strategy. Too bad that hasn’t been repealed too.
The problem with the practice is fairly obvious. Putting policy changes in the budget denies the public and most lawmakers the chance to debate important issues and very few members of the majority party are willing to vote against the entire budget to stop a provision they oppose.
Before the 2007 session began, Hackney promised to end the use of special provisions and the House budget came close to living up to that promise. But Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight loves special provisions and defends them publicly, claiming that they have been used to create popular programs like Smart Start. The new athletic scholarship program was a Senate initiative.
It is the classic case of the ends justifying the means. Smart Start is a valuable program that helps thousands of children every year. Supporters of the scholarship program make a strong argument for it. That’s not the point in either case.
When it comes to the public’s business, the way a law is passed is as important as its merits. That’s the foundation of the democratic process and it took another beating this summer.