Overreaction on the Rural Center
For years, North Carolina progressives have frequently been critical of what might properly be described as the state’s “good ol’ boy economic development establishment.” This skeptical attitude — which has been constant under both Democratic and Republican leadership — was/is born of the rightful perception that too much of the money the state spends in this area (be it on tax breaks and loopholes for corporations, direct handouts to businesses by various governors and their Departments of Commerce or on nonprofit economic development agencies) is subject to favoritism and lack of rigor when it comes to demanding real results.
Given this backdrop, the recent attention on the North Carolina Rural Center is not unwelcome. The recent examination of the Center by the state Auditor provides strong evidence that the Center had many “good ol’ boy” tendencies and didn’t always get all the bang for its buck that would have been desirable (and that it probably led many to believe it was actually generating). In addition, the compensation package for the Executive Director was way too high.
All that said, this morning’s editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer is absolutely right about the need to avoid rash action on the Center’s future. As the editorial puts it:
“Lawmakers shouldn’t make any rash decisions about the center’s mission. Yes, Hall should have resigned, and it may be that others in leadership positions should be replaced as well. Perhaps the mission should be fine-tuned or redefined. Republicans can shape this effort any way they like, but killing it is not necessarily the way to go.”
The editorial could have also gone on to say something like this:
Troubling as some of the reports from the audit are, the plain truth is that the main accusation is simply that the Center has been doing what Governors and Departments of Commerce of both parties have been doing for decades: promising that amazing job growth and economic development would result from their investments of state funds and then sometimes failing to deliver (or keep good track of whether they delivered).
That’s not to say we shouldn’t reform the Center, but to simply ax it overnight as State Budget Director Art Pope has apparently decided to do smacks of something more than simple good budgeting practices — namely a partisan effort by Pope and his cronies to punish a group that they’ve always hated, mostly because of their perception that it has always been staffed predominately by Democrats and maintained close ties to Democratic politicians.
Again, none of this is to say that there shouldn’t be real reform at the Center or that former boss Billy Ray Hall shouldn’t have been forced out, but to simply end the work of the Center overnight, halt ALL of its activities and fire dozens of employees — many of whom work very hard and do great things is an absurd overreaction that smacks just as much of partisan score-settling as it does of a real commitment to genuine, across-the board economic development reform.