The politics of “pork”

The politics of “pork”

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Much has been written this week about the process of the secretly-crafted $23.9 billion budget unveiled by the General Assembly’s GOP majority Monday night.

But some open-government advocates and political science experts say the last week may be a sign that politically vulnerable Republicans fear losing a total lock on state government.

Republican leaders introduced their final budget bill as a conference report, allowing them to skip committee vetting processes and any potential amendments. It’s a move that hasn’t been seen in modern state history – effectively cutting out not just the Democrats in the minority, but dissenting views, questions or additions from Republican voices as well.

But even with a supermajority, the GOP caucus needs to secure enough votes to both pass the budget and overturn a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat with his own radically different budget proposal.

And that, experts say, is where the “pork” comes in.

“Pork barrel” politics is the time-honored tradition of including budget line-items that will bring money to or finance projects in the districts of specific legislators either to secure or reward their political support.

During their decades in the minority, Republicans complained loudly and colorfully about state money flowing into urban and heavily Democratic areas. But since taking control of state government in 2013, Republicans have enthusiastically redirected those funds to their own more rural and conservative areas – and to the causes embraced by their political base.

“‘To the victor go the spoils,’” said Michael Bitzer, professor of History and Political Science at Catawba College in Salisbury. “ And one of the spoils of the legislative majority is to direct funding where their support and where their priorities are.”

Bringing funding for projects and local groups back to their district is a good way for lawmakers to  shore up support and stave off challenges, Bitzer said – as well as a way to advertise their values.

“Legislators seek not just to bring home the bacon but to support groups and associations that are probably more in line with their ideological perspectives,” Bitzer said. “This is something that budget writers have that option of doing.”

This year’s budget is a textbook example.

Of the roughly $35 million of discretionary “pork” spending outlined in the GOP budget, the vast majority goes either to rural GOP stronghold areas or to conservative-leaning organizations like anti-abortion groups and Christian hunting and fishing clubs.

Cleveland County, home to House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cumberland) did particularly well in this year’s budget. The small county, which has fewer than 100,000 residents, got more than a million dollars in grants and funding. That includes $500,000 to host the American Legion Baseball World Series, an amateur baseball event that has been held there since 2011.

The town of Bath, home to just 250 people, was also fortunate. The Greater Bath Foundation, which promotes tourism in the coastal Beaufort County town, got a $20,000 grant.

The county is represented in the House by Republicans Beverly Boswell and Michael Speciale. Boswell, who bills herself as “Eastern NC’s Conservative Champion,” recently faced charges that she falsely claimed to be a registered nurse.  Speciale faced a stiff challenge in his GOP primary from an opponent who vowed to challenge again in 2020.

“It’s certainly within the purview of a supermajority to control the process,” Bitzer said. “It may not have been done to this breadth before and certainly raises concerns about transparency and about the opportunity even for the minority to have any input. But I think in this year’s climate, when the supermajority status may be in play, the view may be to get what you can now because you don’t know what will happen in November.”

Bitzer stopped short of predicting that Republicans will actually lose their supermajority in November, but said the trends are encouraging for Democrats and worrying to some Republicans.

Jonathan Jones

“I think the best shot for Democrats continues to be breaking the supermajority,” Bitzer said. “I’m very doubtful that majority status would swing, but look at what happened in Virginia last year and the potential swing that happened there. Anything goes this year.”

Whatever occasioned this year’s historically secretive budget process, with its rejection of any real debate or amendments, advocates of transparency in government say it’s bad for democracy in the state.

“It runs completely counter to the idea of the democratic process,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. “And it certainly runs counter to the idea of being transparent with their constituents.”

“The Democratic process is supposed to give citizens the chance to witness how the horse trading is done to get to the end product,” Jones said. “But we’ve avoided that entirely here. At the 11th hour, it gets presented and that’s it. It even avoids the legislators themselves deciding what it should look like beyond what the leadership has already decided.”

That sort of process is not generally the sign of a body that believes the public supports their work, Jones said, and it inevitably erodes trust in government.

“There’s no way it can instill confidence in the work of the general assembly for constituents to have no idea how they’re doing things,” Jones said.