SCOTT MOONEYHAM: State Highway Funding Disagreement Is Mostly a Turf Battle
Judging from the hubbub, it would be easy to conclude that the fussing over how to pay for a section of a loop around Charlotte had some significance.
The good news for Charlotte area commuters: It probably doesn't.
Instead, the squawking between the offices of Gov. Bev Perdue and State Treasurer Janet Cowell is one of those disputes that arises from time to time between government agencies attempting to protect their turf.
In the case of Perdue, the turf involved is the Department of Transportation and highway planning. A few weeks back, the governor and her transportation secretary, Gene Conti, announced a plan intended to speed up construction of the final 5-mile leg of Interstate 485.
With the state able to afford only $290 million for the $340 million project, Perdue trekked down to Charlotte to announce a novel financing plan that involved the contractor financing of the final $50 million, to be repaid later.
Cowell had her own turf to consider. She oversees the financing of state debt. A lawyer whom she hired to look over the idea concluded that Perdue's Department of Transportation doesn't have the legal authority to enter into the financing deal.
Once Cowell's objections became public, DOT officials responded that they had no warning until the day that Perdue announced the plan. Cowell's office countered with e-mails showing that objections were raised two weeks earlier.
All this sound and fury, though, is really only two people doing their respective jobs.
Perdue obviously recognizes how traffic snarls around the state's largest city have become a critical quality-of-life issue and even an impediment to economic development. Taking aggressive steps to untangle the traffic knots is both good policy and good politics in a place where the governor doesn't enjoy deep political support.
Cowell, meanwhile, has a responsibility to point out flaws wherever they exist when it comes to the state's debt and how it is financed. She shouldn't worry about who will be offended.
Her predecessor, Richard Moore, made no fan of former Gov. Mike Easley by publicly objecting to that governor's interception of pension fund contributions to help close a state budget shortfall. Moore's predecessor, Harlan Boyles, angered governors and legislators on many occasions with his warnings about state finances.
Of course, the finger-pointing might have been avoided had DOT officials and Perdue's lawyers done their homework. And Cowell would have been better served by forcefully acknowledging her objections, rather than letting them come out in dribs and drabs.
The reason that the fussing isn't likely to have much bearing on the actual road project is because the dispute, after all, is about the law.
The North Carolina legislature makes the law, and for quite a while now, legislators have been trying to find ways to speed up highway construction in a time of declining road dollars.
If they need to further refine the law as part of that effort, they almost certainly will.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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