Campbell: Picking gnats from the state budget elephant

May. 24, 2013 @ 09:29 AM

You have to hand it to North Carolina’s Republican Senators. They relish going, as Star Trek proclaimed, “Where no man has gone before.” They appear to enjoy painting bull’s-eyes on themselves, daring feedback. We admire their boldness and courage but their tax reform proposals and recently passed budget deserve closer deliberation.

The Senate budget is chock-full of “special provisions” or mandates, policies or regulations that have been neither deliberated nor voted upon by either or both houses, yet will be enacted if their budget is adopted. Republicans, along with good government advocates, loudly condemned the practice when Democrats slipped these non-voted provisions in their budgets. It was wrong then and wrong today.

The special provision that guts the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center is an egregious example of this bad policy. Republican partisans claim the Rural Center was founded and controlled by Democrats. In truth, it was created following the recommendation of the North Carolina Commission on Jobs and Economic Growth, chaired by Greensboro’s Jim Melvin, and initially funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Billy Ray Hall, reportedly a Democratic operative, heads it. True, Hall worked for several Democratic administrations, but he also worked in the Republican Holshouser administration.

The Senate budget not only eliminates all the $17 million state appropriation, little more than a gnat on the state budget elephant, but also prohibits any governmental agency or nonprofit that receives state funding from contributing to the Rural Center, instead creating a new division in the Department of Commerce to oversee rural and economic development.

As much as we admire Secretary Sharon Decker’s great energy, vision and executive ability this is a bad idea. Commerce has been responsible for rural economic development and has a poor track record, which prompted the creation of the regional economic development partnerships, also with spotty performance records.

But the Rural Center’s work includes more than just economic development. Among other functions, they pursue and distribute federal and state grants (especially public water systems), conduct research, disseminate information, train leaders, encourage entrepreneurs and have a solid track record in helping create jobs in rural areas. Can we honestly expect Commerce to provide these functions more effectively and economically?

I have worked closely with Billy Ray Hall, have followed the Rural Center fairly closely for some years and have never gotten any hint of partisanship from this public-private partnership. Their 50-member board, the same number as when founded, contains leaders from all sectors and parties. To be sure, they can be better but they seem earnest in welcoming suggestions for improvement and in offering full and complete transparency.

But there is a broader implication. The message senators are sending to folks in rural counties is that they don’t matter, ironic because these rural counties elected many of them. Rural North Carolina is already suffering greater unemployment, poorer health outcomes, unequal education opportunities and a laundry list of other problems. Their influence in the legislature has waned dramatically and they need champions, not folks taking pot shots.

This feels like capricious partisan politics, the very evil Republican leaders vowed would not happen on their watch. Our rural areas deserve better and we hope our lawmakers will rise to the challenge.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a discussion of North Carolina issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50.  Contact him at www.ncspin.com.