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Legislating In The Dark

Budget crisis or leadership crisis?

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Like everyone else in North Carolina, freshman state legislator Jeff Barnhart had heard that the state was in a budget crisis. He wanted to believe it, but one thing stood in his way. He'd never actually seen a detailed copy of the state budget he had voted to approve. Like so many state legislators before him, Barnhart had asked the governor's office for a full, unabridged copy of the budget, but was told none existed. Again and again, he was given what legislators call the budget pamphlet, a booklet of 100 or so pages handed out every budget season. The pamphlet contains details on new funding requests by the departments of state government, which is basically what legislators vote on when they approve the budget. What it doesn't contain is information on what's already in the multimillion or billion dollar budgets of state departments.

"When we vote on a budget," says veteran Rep. Connie Wilson, "we don't really know what's in it."

Legislators who care enough to try to find out have often given up in frustration, they say.

"Only if a legislator asks the right questions on what is in the base budget do they get answers from (department employees) and a lot of times we don't know the right questions to ask," said Barnhart.

But Barnhart wasn't one to give up easily. It seemed to him that if little or nothing had ever been cut out of the state budget, then obscure, long-forgotten programs started 20 and 30 years ago must still be up and running, though legislators had never bothered to monitor their progress and had largely forgotten they existed. So Barnhart started digging, back to a time about four years before the skinny pamphlets replaced the large bound budget books that at least listed the names of many of the programs in the state budget. He closed his eyes, opened one to a random page and pointed to a random line. It was the Homemaker Displacement Advocacy Program, created by Rep. Ruth Easterling, in the 1970s in the heyday of the women's rights movement, to help middle-aged homemakers whose husbands had abandoned them to enter the workforce for the first time. Each year, the state still tosses about half a million dollars at it.

No doubt this program has helped women somewhere to accomplish something. But last year, when they hiked taxes by nearly a billion dollars, legislative leaders told the media this was a crisis and that they'd cut the budget to the bone when, in fact, they had no idea what was actually in it.

The supposed "crisis" also had no impact on the funding of the NC Center for International Understanding started by former Governor Jim Hunt. The state spends over $600,000 a year to operate the center, which is essentially a publicly funded travel agency for politicians and educators who want to take "educational" trips abroad, and raises money from corporations to help pay for it.

The budget is loaded with stuff like this. If legislators wanted to find it and trim it, they could, but I'm convinced they don't. This year, Rep. Jim Gulley co-sponsored a zero-based budget amendment, signed by 17 Republicans and three Democrats, that over the next five years would have forced the state's departments to reveal what they did with the base budget money they get each year. The budget process would start at zero and the programs would then be added to it. Despite a poll of legislators in which over 60 percent claimed to want to use zero-based budgeting, Gulley's amendment disappeared in conference committee. Gulley has had a difficult time tracking down who took it out and why.

The bottom line, which the rest of the media appears determined to avoid reporting, is that the state's financial analysts are predicting budget deficits of $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion a year until 2007, deficits that will dwarf the one we've seen this year. But still, legislators keep spending, borrowing $800 million they'll have to pay back in their next budget from Medicaid, highway construction trust funds and teacher and state employee retirement funds -- not to balance the budget, but to fund new projects. When it comes time to pay back that $800 million in the next budget, they'll also have to contend with a predicted $1.8 billion revenue shortfall that's sure to have the bond rating services who lowered our rating this year running for cover.

But still, they keep spending. While legislative leaders were publicly feigning reluctance at having to raise tuition at the state's universities due to the "crisis," they were busy approving an $80 million golf resort for NC State which will include an 18-hole PGA Championship Arnold Palmer golf course and a 250-room luxury hotel with indoor pool, all of which will be funded by state-backed bonds.

And the $333 million the governor refused to return to local municipalities because of the budget "crisis"? The true intended use of that money became clear in a senate bill floated this week that proposes to give away $334 million over five years to businesses in exchange for moving to North Carolina.

There is no budget crisis in Raleigh. There's a leadership crisis.

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