Setting the Record Straight

A budget-cutting idea that should appeal to all sides

Corrections reform experts to speak here next week: Will leaders heed their advice? 

One of the single biggest problems to confront state lawmakers when it gets down to balancing the budget is this: Where can they find hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts that won't cause terrific harm?

Just about everyone (at least everyone in the policy advocacy world) is on board for cutting "waste, fraud and abuse." Hefty university salaries for former First Ladies? Taxpayer subsidies to athletic booster clubs? Swanky travel arrangements for big shots? Heck, if these were all that stood between budget writers and huge savings in state spending, the N.C. Justice Center and its ideological foes at the Locke Foundation could have agreed on a joint proposal for next year's budget several weeks ago.

The problem, of course, is that, despite their ability to send just about everyone's blood pressure through the roof, most of these kinds of wasteful spending items do not really add up to that much in the big picture.

Sure, progressive and conservative analysts could undoubtedly agree on millions of dollars as being properly classified as "waste." Indeed, they should probably take steps to make it happen. Ultimately, however, this is not where the really big money is in a $20-plus billion state government budget.

Try as they might to convince people that North Carolina can slash the state budget by 15 or 20% by merely trimming fat, conservatives are simply wrong on this matter. As was noted in this space (and, happily, on the House floor during the most recent budget debate) a few weeks ago:

"[M]ost of the big money in government goes to paying average, everyday people average wages to help their average fellow citizens with average, everyday needs."

In other words, you can't simply lop off hundreds of millions of dollars from the public schools or the Medicaid program without hurting, respectively, the classroom and access to health care.

An important exception

One area of comparatively significant appropriations that could endure some big cuts, however, – at least over the long run – is corrections. The state's seemingly endless infatuation with building prisons and enacting ever-tougher criminal sentences has clearly placed it on a path toward unsustainable and debilitating growth in what it spends in this area.

In recent years, the total has whizzed past the billion dollar mark and it remains on a skyward trajectory. And while this is still a fairly small percentage of total general fund spending (and thus not in the same ballpark with schools or health care) savings could be significant and well worth the time and energy it would take to make them happen – especially if the state could actually secure better outcomes in terms of safety and offender rehabilitation.

Happily, there is a promising reform path available to state leaders in this area. As we noted in this space a few weeks ago:

"Earlier this year, experts at the Council of State Governments made a brief presentation to a legislative committee in which they offered to show North Carolina leaders how they have helped a number of other states including Texas (Texas!) to shift resources away from building more and more prisons and toward a smarter, cheaper, more effective community corrections system that emphasizes things like drug treatment and mental health services. 

This is an offer that North Carolina lawmakers should seize upon and run with as fast as possible. Especially in light of the current budget crisis, it is simply inexcusable for us to continue with "business as usual" when it comes to criminal justice system."

Next Monday, state leaders will get their opportunity to follow-up on and take advantage of this offer when the same experts return to Raleigh for follow-up meetings and an NC Policy Watch "Crucial Conversation" luncheon.

The headline presenter of the pair will be State Representative Jerry Madden of Texas. Madden is not the typical "poster-child" spokesperson for corrections reform. He is not a social worker or a former criminal defense lawyer. He is, in fact, a conservative Republican businessman and a former military man who has served in the Texas House of Representatives for nearly two decades.

As a man with deeply conservative values and credentials, Madden was forced some years ago to come to terms with the inherent conflict between his fiscal conservatism and his state's runaway corrections budget – much of which was the result of its "conservative," "get tough" approach to criminal justice.         

For Madden, the choice became clear – particularly when experts like Michael Thompson of a group known as the Council of State Governments (Madden's co-presenter next week) added their expertise: Texas could save boatloads of money and do a better job of fighting crime if it invested a lot less in building more prisons and put some of the money it saved into cost-effective alternatives like "community corrections."

Ever since that realization dawned on Madden and many of his fellow law and policymakers, Texas has made real strides in slowing its corrections spending growth. It will be a story that will be extremely interesting to hear more about.

For Thompson, the realization came even earlier. He's worked on these issues for the Council since 1997 and has, during that time, successfully related his experience regarding corrections reform to multiple states. More importantly, Thompson oversees a staff of experts and consultants who provide:

"intensive assistance to state and local policymakers. They analyze complex public safety problems that often require multidisciplinary, bipartisan responses. Using data-driven approaches and thoughtful analyses, staff work with stakeholders to develop comprehensive plans that build on the latest research and lessons learned from other jurisdictions to address these problems."

In essence, Madden and Thompson will be here to tell North Carolina leaders a plain and simple truth and to make an offer of assistance. It should go something like this:

"Other states have discovered that they were wasting vast sums of money on corrections systems that were increasingly counter-productive. After working with us they developed alternative approaches that have not only saved them bundles but that have provided them with safer, saner communities. We stand ready to help North Carolina explore these same issues."

Going forward

While finding an easy-to-agree-to, bi-partisan solution to what ails North Carolina's budget and tax systems is not likely to occur anytime soon, there is clearly room for common ground in the area of corrections reform. As Representative Madden's leadership on this issue (and that of the non-partisan Council of State Governments) demonstrates, it could and should be an important matter on which progressives and conservatives come together for the common good.

Let's hope next week's visit is well-received and that it is only the beginning of a new chapter in North Carolina government.