Tempest in a teapot museum

By: - August 22, 2005 5:10 am

Shelby Star
Barry Smith
Star Raleigh Bureau

RALEIGH — “If someone set a bonfire with copies of this budget, it would smell like bacon,” Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger told his colleagues as the chamber was debating the $17.2 billion state government budget.

Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, was poking fun at page after page of special appropriations in the state budget going back home to members’ districts.

Republicans in the General Assembly were quick to hop onto pork-barrel projects in the budget. A $400,000 appropriation to the Sparta Teapot Museum became the focus of the critics’ rally against the budget.

The appropriation was heralded by Rep. Jim Harrell III, D-Surry, whose district includes Sparta and Alleghany County.

Harrell said the museum, which would house the Kamm historic teapot collection, would also be an artisan museum designed to attract tourists to an area of the state that has suffered economic hardship.

“It gives them a lure to attract people off the Blue Ridge Parkway, to stay in the bed and breakfasts, eat in our restaurants and purchase items from our gift shops,” Harrell said.

Berger said that people aren’t surprised to see senators and representatives trying to secure appropriations for projects back home. He said that the reason the teapot museum jumped to the top of the list has to do more with process than its worthiness.

“I think the reason the teapot museum has jumped to the top of the list is this was never discussed in public in terms of an open meeting, to my knowledge,” Berger said, noting that it was not in earlier budgets approved by the House or the Senate.

“It was slipped in behind closed doors during a period of time when a small group of people were putting the final budget together,” he said.

When the final product — called a conference report — comes to the floor of the two chambers, lawmakers aren’t given an opportunity to amend the budget. They must vote for or against the entire budget package.

Pork or investment?

Sen. Walter Dalton, a Rutherford County Democrat who co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that many of the localized spending items — especially those pushed by members of the Senate — had to do with community colleges and education spending in an effort to help areas that have fallen on tough times economically.

“If someone wants to call that pork-barrel, they can,” Dalton said. “But I think it’s an investment.”

He went on to say, “I fully defend any and all the special projects that we saw in the Senate budget as projects that bring North Carolina forward.”

As for projects that ended up in the budget because of the urging of House members, Dalton said that members of the two chambers didn’t always look at things the same.

“We have a House and we have a Senate, and sometimes we look at the world differently,” Dalton said.

Harrell said the teapot museum would be an economic boost for the mountain area. He noted that it is difficult for Alleghany County to recruit a lot of industry because the roads aren’t suited for the transportation needs many businesses have in moving their products.

“It’s really tough,” he said, noting that you’d travel about 26 miles from Elkin to Sparta on a winding highway. “That’s how you get your commerce out.”

Harrell noted that the effort to get the Sparta Teapot Museum government subsidies had bipartisan support.

Indeed, GOP members of the North Carolina congressional delegation are pushing for money to be included in the federal budget.

“At the request of local officials in Alleghany County, Congresswoman (Virginia) Foxx did put in a request in the Transportation-Treasury bill,” Amy Auth, Foxx’s press secretary, said.

Doug Heye, press secretary to U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said that Burr is working with local community leaders to get an appropriation included in the Senate budget.

“In this case, he’s making a request for what’s called an economic development incentive grant,” Heye said.

“That’s like the old saying that it’s only pork when it’s not in your district,” said state Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance.

Ms. Bordsen got $50,000 inserted into the budget to get two water tanks and a dam repaired at the Glencoe mill village in Alamance County.

She said that the county will be marketing the Glencoe area as a tourist attraction and that the state money would help in drawing down more money from grants, possibly from the federal government.

“We can turn that into many, many more dollars,” she said. “It is important environmentally; it’s important as far as parks and recreation; it’s important for travel and tourism; it’s important for economic development.”

More appropriations

Other examples of local appropriations include:

n $50,000 to aid the City of New Bern prepare for its 300th anniversary.

n $30,000 for relocation and preservation of the Civil War CSS Neuse gunboat.

n $50,000 to support the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck recovery project.

n $2 million for the Farmville-Greene County water project.

Berger said that the special appropriations in this year’s budget are more than usual.

“The sheer number and magnitude of those things set forth in the budget are more than anything I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Legislature,” he said.

That could be a result of the flack that House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, former Speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore, and Senate President Pro-tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, caught earlier this year when $14 million in discretionary funds that they controlled came to light.

“There were criticisms of that,” Dalton noted. Adding that in the past, the Senate has tried to make such appropriations a part of the budget rather than make them a part of top legislative leaders’ discretionary spending. “That’s probably the reason you see more.”

Berger suggests that such spending calls into question whether the General Assembly has its priorities in order.

“We’re being told that we don’t have enough money to take care of core government functions, we don’t have enough money to take care of the schools and universities, that we don’t have enough money to process rape kits, that we’ve got to raise taxes in order to do those things,” Berger said. “If we’ve got enough money to fund teapot museums and support nonprofits and a million dollars for cooking schools in Charlotte, then maybe in fact we do have money there, and we’re just not spending it wisely.”

Barry Smith can be reached at [email protected]

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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