We saw once again this week that backrooms and private meetings are the native habitat of that never-endangered species, political pork. When legislative leaders pulled the curtain back to reveal their 2018-19 budget, it became quickly apparent that deviating from the traditional budget-writing process gave political pork room to grow and proliferate. To be clear, many of these line-items go to reasonable and valuable projects, but the unusually opaque process should give everyone heartburn.
By our count, appropriations that could be seen as pork add up to nearly $35 million in this year’s budget (see table below for the full list). While many of these projects serve important public services, this kind of legislative process is the wrong way to make good policy.
Building budgets is inherently about priorities and investing in the communities that everyone can thrive in. There is often debate about how much to invest in education versus health care or parks versus roads, and that is particularly acute when lawmakers continue to limit what is possible with a focus on cutting taxes year after year.
But what is most clear over time in the difficult choices of budgeting is that the legislative process does a poor job of making more nuanced decisions about which town deserves a new roof for its community center, or which food bank most desperately needs an infusion of funds. The budget, in the end, should be about prioritizing the systems that will connect every place and every person to the services they need to thrive.
After all, legislators can’t be expected to understand enough about every community’s needs to make wise choices about which specific projects to fund, and even if they could, political pressures and legislative deal-making often intrude on the efficient use of public funds. In large part, the executive branch exists precisely to make specific allocations of funds more evidence-based and rooted in merit. Administrative agencies have the expertise and processes in place to minimize the influence of politics, require that local needs are well-documented, and ensure that recipients of public funds are accountable. Very little of this exists when the legislature steps in and starts directing funds to extremely specific local projects.
Even if many of the specific local projects funded in the current budget have merit, we have no idea how these priorities were chosen or which vital local needs are going unmet. (We also don’t know how the General Assembly’s experiment worked with the last round of hyper-local investments in the final budget last year. Is there evidence out there that taxpayers got a positive return?)
North Carolina has many systems in place to ensure that public funds are spent intelligently and transparently, but the amount of pork in this year’s budget represents a step in the wrong direction.
Patrick McHugh is an Economic Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.