Republican lawmakers in Raleigh appear to be running out of tricks up their sleeves.
Stuck in a standoff with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over a number of things — expansion of Medicaid chief among them — Republicans have mimicked an old tactic from the former Democratic majority: If you can’t beat ’em, bribe ’em.
OK, “bribe” might be a bit strong. But how about “buy off”? That’s what the Republican majority and its budget writers have done this year by stuffing into the two-year state spending plan millions of dollars for small-scale projects in local communities.
The time-weary tradition of this so-called “pork barrel spending” is typical at the federal level. U.S. House and Senate members were renowned over the years for using federal dollars to show just how “effective” they could be in helping their local constituencies. Here in North Carolina, Democrats did it for years to keep the machine well oiled. Now come the Republicans.
Good to be the King
Earmarked funds have been growing the last couple of years, but this year Republican lawmakers are bragging about it, and it smells of desperation. According to published analyses of these “direct appropriations,” more than 90 percent are going to districts with Republican representatives. Heck, most were in Senate President Phil Berger’s district, which covers Eden, Yanceyville and King. That includes a $15 million loan to the city of King.
As Mel Brooks would say, “It’s good to be the king.”
While Democrats are decrying this spending, so too are conservative organizations. Folks who study this thing, ranging from progressive groups like the N.C. Conservation Network to the ultraconservative Civitas Institute, say this line of work is out of hand. Funding via legislative whim short-circuits the competitive process and reasonable oversight. Lost along the way is anyone asking a simple question: “Is this the best way to spend our tax dollars?”
Republicans, many of whom represent rural districts, say their areas need the extra help because they’re poorer and lack the funds that the urban communities can generate for improvements to water, sewer, schools and roads.
We’re not left out of this here in Moore County. Last week, The Pilot ran an opinion column from local State Rep. Jamie Boles, who said millions of dollars for local projects were at risk because of the current budget standoff between Cooper and the General Assembly. That includes $50,000 grants for the Moore County Historical Association and the Moore Free Care Clinic; $2 million to convert the old jail into a juvenile detention center; and $1.5 million for Boles’ own pet project, the state law enforcement training facility out at Samarcand.
“At the end of the day,” Boles wrote, “the governor vetoed a good budget for Moore County and hard-working people across the state.”
Let’s Have Real Support
But if Boles and the rest of the legislature are interested in a good budget, how about they take their appropriation responsibility seriously instead of politically?
Rather than load up a bunch of pork-barrel spending for favored lawmakers, the legislature should instead put more money toward education. Let’s give teachers real dollars for classroom supplies. Let’s give support staff like bus drivers and cafeteria workers the raises they need to support families.
Let’s help our communities, especially poor rural ones like Robbins that lack the ability to tap funds because they happen to be in counties that qualify as well-off.
And let’s put funds toward expansion of Medicaid, so people who are working but can’t afford private health insurance can receive adequate health insurance.
That’s real community support, not these earmarked sleights-of-hand — one-off buy-offs that feign caring and concern. We’re far smarter than that.