Hood: Governor should be Mr. Fix-It

Apr. 25, 2013 @ 09:31 PM

Now that Pat McCrory has passed the oh-so-important mark of 100 days in office, the political class in Raleigh feels obligated to offer a critique of his administration. The most common one is that Gov. McCrory is playing “small ball.”

That is, the critics say that because the governor didn’t propose a major spending program in his 2013-15 budget plan, he’s not really doing anything of consequence. Even the reform initiatives McCrory has announced for Medicaid and transportation lack the rhyming names or other mnemonic devices of past gubernatorial projects.

To assume that governors or presidents must make their political careers with new spending, however, is to reveal the usual bias of the insiders and commentators who make up the political class. Indeed, the entire concept of the “first 100 days” is a paean to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a frenetic, incoherent and expensive burst of legislative activity that prolonged the Great Depression and expanded the federal government far beyond its proper, constitutional bounds.

Most North Carolinians want their state government to facilitate economic growth, deliver core services without high levels of cost or corruption and otherwise leave them the heck alone. They aren’t sheep in need of a shepherd. They don’t have extra money burning holes in their pockets. If they are paying attention to state politics at all right now, they see in Pat McCrory a sort of “Mr. Fix-It.” They seem to approve.

Shortly after taking office, McCrory began talking about the grave administrative problems facing state government. His inspection report was sobering. State buildings are in disrepair. Mismanagement and cost overruns are common. A recent report from State Auditor Beth Wood uncovered some mind-boggling screw-ups in the office that manages the state’s technology purchases. For the 84 projects studied, cost to taxpayers exceeded initial estimates by a collective $356 million. In one case, a project that began life as a minor tweak with an estimate of $525,000 somehow turned into a $97 million monstrosity.

In his budget plan, then, McCrory didn’t try to make headlines with new spending programs. Instead, it dedicates most of the expected revenue growth for the next two fiscal years to repairing and renovating state facilities, building up the state’s contingency funds and funding the state’s core services in public safety, education and transportation.

The budget plan does include a new program, NC GEAR, but its purpose is to reduce the cost of government over time, not increase it. The acronym stands for “North Carolina Government Efficiency And Reorganization.” It will spend the next year pulling together data, best practices and experts from the public and private sectors to fashion a comprehensive plan for reorganizing state government. In 2014, McCrory will then exercise his constitutional authority to submit the plan to the legislature for a straight up-or-down vote.

A related project will be a study of how North Carolina compensates public employees. The system rewards longevity too much and superior performance too little. The legislature is working on legislation to authorize school districts to develop performance-pay plans for teachers, which would complement the governor’s initiative nicely.

Liberals aren’t the only politicos who have expressed disappointment about the scope of the governor’s agenda. Some conservatives were expecting McCrory to include a major rewrite of North Carolina’s tax code in his budget plan. But I think the governor made the right call here, as well. He knew that leaders of both legislative chambers have their own, strongly held ideas about tax reform. He’s hoping they will work out their differences and produce a consensus bill. Once he signs it, it will inevitably become the McCrory tax reform in the public mind, anyway.

To this fiscal conservative, having a chief executive who believes his primary responsibility is to run the executive branch of state government is hardly grounds for complaint. It is a refreshing change. Taxpayers need someone who will fix what is broken, not try to bamboozle them into buying shiny new things.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.