It may seem like ancient history, but there was a time not that long ago in North Carolina in which Republican legislators were out of power and, alongside conservative advocacy groups, passionately promoting a “change” platform that blasted the incumbent Democrats for: 1) gerrymandering elections for partisan gain; 2) abusing power at the General Assembly by not allowing adequate debate on controversial legislation; and 3) stuffing the state budget with pork barrel projects.
Those who’ve paid any attention at all to state politics in recent years are probably already aware how promises #1 and #2 turned out (not so well), but the issue of pork barrel spending can be a little tougher to ferret out and assess. Fortunately, at least two North Carolina news outlets have been looking into the matter in recent weeks and, have, not surprisingly, uncovered compelling evidence of more rank hypocrisy.
Consider the chart that WRAL.com published last Friday morning. In eight pages, the chart lists 530 separate items contained in the budget sent by lawmakers to Gov. Cooper last month that would direct a total $383 million to local projects over the next two fiscal years.
As one would expect, the appropriations vary widely when it comes to size, location and purpose. Some are modest in size and pretty easy to decipher (e.g. $20,000 for “Sheriff ATV’s” in Columbus County). Others are significantly larger and less specific (e.g. $1 million to the Friends of John Coltrane, Inc., for the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in Guilford County – the same amount appropriated to Guilford County for “tornado aid”).
As one would also expect, the home counties of powerful GOP lawmakers fare well. Take Speaker Tim Moore’s home county of Cleveland, for example. With a population of around 97,000, Cleveland County is home to a little less than 1% of North Carolinians. Impressively, however, Cleveland manages to pull in 19 direct appropriations or around three and half times the number one might have expected based on its population. Included on the list: a healthy $4.5 million appropriation for courthouse repair and renovation and a $2.5 million outlay for the local community college. Altogether, Cleveland County pulls in around $8.5 million, which is more than twice what one would expect its share to be based on population.
Similarly, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s home county of Rockingham (population 90,000), would receive 13 direct appropriations for a total of over $5.925 million.
In contrast, Mecklenburg County, with a population of over one million, receives just six targeted earmarks.
A recent story on WBTV.com highlighted a similar pattern uncovered by researchers at the North Carolina Conservation Network with respect to “earmarks for local park projects and water and sewer infrastructure improvements in communities across the state.”
It found that “nearly all of the earmarked money is slated to go to Republican districts.”
As a noteworthy aside, it should be pointed out that the dollar figure spelled out in the WRAL.com list ($286 million in 2019-2020) far exceeds the projected state share for Year One of that ultimate right-wing bogeyman: Medicaid expansion.
For years, conservatives have complained incessantly about the supposedly gargantuan cost to the state of expanding Medicaid. Even if one sets aside the fact that the cost could be easily covered through a tax on managed care insurance companies (an idea with bipartisan support) and hospital assessments (which many other states use to help finance Medicaid expansion with hospital support), the state share in Year One is estimated at approximately $219 million – far less than is currently earmarked in the new budget for pork.
None of this is to imply that all of the recipients targeted in the budget for the direct appropriation of state money are unworthy. While some appropriations – like the latest influx of cash to a number of religious groups for expressly sectarian purposes – are highly objectionable, most of the causes funded are the kinds for which public support often makes sense.
The problem, of course, is the absurdly hypocritical lack of process and transparency. Simply put: state lawmakers ought not to be inserting special language into the budget to give $5,000 to their hometown Boys & Girls Club. To the extent that government wants to get in the business of funding private entities to perform public works, it should delegate the decision for meting out funds to professionals in the relevant state agencies and establish safeguards so that the most deserving applicants are selected – even those without powerful legislative patrons.
A decade ago, such a critique was a boilerplate talking point for North Carolina conservatives looking to gain power. Today, it’s clear that that was just talk.