Losing public confidence

By: - March 16, 2005 2:53 pm

A broad coalition of public interest groups, think tanks, and former legislators met with reporters Wednesday to support a reform of North Carolina’s woefully weak lobbying laws. There are currently no limits on gifts to legislators from lobbyists and no requirement that the gifts be reported. Speaker after speaker at the event pointed out that tougher regulations would help restore public faith in government.

The lobbying reform press event came on the day that a story in the News and Observer reported that last year’s budget created special reserve accounts under the control of House Co-Speakers Jim Black and Richard Morgan and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. Black and Morgan each controlled $5 million, Basnight $10 million.

The revelation comes out of a story about Black using money from the account to create a state job for former House member Michael Decker, who switched parties to keep Black in power in 2003.

But the story is much bigger than a job for a political supporter. Legislative leaders have been doling out money for projects proposed to them by individual members of the House and Senate, projects not approved by the entire General Assembly, just the Speaker or President Pro tem.

Many of the projects are worthy endeavors, museums, libraries, local arts councils, but shouldn’t those projects face the same scrutiny and debate as other programs that get state money?

Twenty million dollars is a lot of money, especially given last year’s budget shortfall, a problem that is still with us.

Twenty million dollars could pay to raise the state’s disgraceful eligibility standard for lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs with enough left over to provide a day care subsidy for 2,000 kids stuck on the waiting list.

The money could have gone into the mental health trust fund to help communities care for the mentally ill, or cut the ratio of school nurses to students by a third. The money could have gone into the Housing Trust Fund and built more than 2,000 affordable housing units and created more than a thousand jobs. It could have reduced the $ 71 million cut to the operating budgets of public schools.

Maybe if legislators fully debated the projects approved by Black, Morgan, and Basnight, they would have all been funded anyway. Or maybe lawmakers would have raised more revenue to fund the projects and help people on the waiting list for services and medicine. We will never know.

Reportedly, negotiations over the discretionary money held up the final budget agreement last session.

Black says there will not be a reserve fund this year, that last year was unusual, telling the News and Observer “there was money left over.” That’s reassuring to families on the waiting list for services to keep their disabled family member out of an institution, that there was money left over.

Legislative leaders all said last session after the budget was approved that they wished they could have done more for education and human services. Now we know they could have.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066