Beware of ideologues touting pilot programs

Beware of ideologues touting pilot programs

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Pilot programs are nothing new in the state policy world and they often are a result of a compromise when sweeping new proposals run into stiff opposition. In theory they make sense.

Try something new in a limited area or limited number or for a limited amount of time and then evaluate the results. It sounds logical enough.

But not for the folks currently running the General Assembly. They seem to have a different definition of pilot programs, seeing them not as a way to try something new and then evaluate it, but as a strategy to launch ideologically based policies that they then expand before any meaningful evaluation of them is possible, sometimes even before the alleged pilot has begun.

The 2013 budget approved by the General Assembly included a provision allocating $1.3 million for a number of solar-powered water mixers to reduce algae blooms in Jordan Lake.

The provision was in essence a no-bid contract for the company that makes the unusual devices, called solar bees, and was described as a two-year demonstration project to address the pollution problems in the lake that is major source of drinking water for the Triangle.

The solar bee solution also came with a further delay in the implementation of common sense water quality rules developed to protect the lake that were vigorously opposed by developers.

The solar bees were put in the lake in July of 2014 for an 18-month test run which is still underway, though WRAL-TV reports that according to state environmental officials preliminary findings show there has been little improvement in the lake.

You’d think that would be a cause for concern but undaunted, the 2015 budget approved last month includes another $1.5 million to extend the solar bee project until 2018. Never mind that the final data is not available or that the early results are not encouraging.

And the refining of pilot projects isn’t just limited to the solar bee debacle.

For 30 years the state banned the construction of hardened structures like terminal groins to off the coast to protect beachfront property, based on the bad experiences of other states and the increased beach erosion that occurs down the shore from where the groins are built.

But after years of intense lobbying from wealthy beach towns and coastal developers, the General Assembly decided in 2011 to lift the ban and allow four terminal groins to be built as pilot projects.

Environmentalists opposed the move pointing to the obvious lessons from other states, but lawmakers insisted and promised the four pilot projects would be test cases for how well the terminal groins work and how they affect the adjacent parts of the coast.

None of the four projects have even been built yet so there are no results to measure. But out of nowhere this year’s budget increases the number of projects that can be built to six and that came after Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown initially proposed removing the cap altogether saying that a lot of communities want the projects. So much for a pilot.

And finally there is the state’s sketchy school voucher scheme, created in the 2013 budget with $10 million for a limited number of low-income students to use at private and religious schools with virtually no accountability measures in place.

The program may not have been specifically branded as a pilot, but its limited funding and limited access made it easier for some legislators to support. And the voucher scheme was sold repeatedly as an alternative for some low-income parents whose children were struggling in public schools.

You’d think that policymakers would want to know how the voucher program was working before they expanded it but they didn’t. This year’s budget includes an additional $14 million for vouchers and there’s still no real accountability in how the money is spent and no way to know what kind of education the children receive who are using the vouchers.

Efforts by Rep. Paul Stam to expand the voucher scheme even further failed in the legislative session’s final days after several of Stam’s Republican colleagues said they wanted more information about how the students in voucher schools were performing.

Rep. Leo Daughtry told a committee described one church school receiving vouchers that he visited “didn’t seem to be a school that we would want to send taxpayer dollars to.”

It’s too bad Daughtry and his colleagues didn’t raise the same objections during the debate on the budget that expanded voucher funding, but it’s a start.

Now if we can just get lawmakers to remember the definition of pilot project.