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Discretionary funds: Who's responsible?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 28, 2005

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Who is responsible for the "discretionary funds" we have been reading about-the ones are budgeted to state agencies with the understanding that certain legislative leaders would direct how they would be spent?

We blame the politicians, of course. But, the rest of us have to take our share of responsibility, too, especially those of us who push our local representatives to get state funding for important local projects-roads, museums, educational institutions, arts organizations, and other good causes.

When our state representative legislators get state funds for local projects, we don't condemn them. On the contrary, we honor them at groundbreakings and other celebrations.

There is always a fight to fund special projects and special concerns of individual legislators.

Getting government money to fund worthy projects is a big part of what government is all about. Ideally, the legislature looks over the public needs of the state each year, prioritizes them, and then passes a budget that allocates funds in accordance with those priorities.

For the most part, it really happens that way. But around the edges, there is always a fight to fund special projects and special concerns of individual legislators--projects and concerns that might not make it to the top of an objective list of the state's top priorities.

Around state government, these battles rage everywhere, all the time.

In the legislature, one of the two big battlegrounds is in the "open" progress in which the members vote on a budget bill that has specific items that appropriate monies for particular purposes and projects.

I put the word "open" in quotation marks because many of the budget decisions are made behind closed doors in secret meetings of small groups of legislators. But before the budget passes, every legislator has an opportunity to vote for or against the final spending package.

The budget bill will always contain money for the favorite projects of legislative leaders. Also there will be money for the leaders' allies. Critics will tell you that these are "payoffs" for loyalty or for being members of the leaders' teams.

I remember when, a few years ago, the House budget writers gave each House member the opportunity to designate a few thousand dollars for a favorite project. These small awards were genuine "pork barrel" projects, even though most of them were for good things like volunteer fire departments, parks, or schools. The inclusion of this long list of small projects usually kept legislators from complaining about the big items of "pork" that the leaders had scattered throughout the rest of the bill.

On one occasion, when the late and legendary Billy Watkins was in charge of the House budget process, another legislator had the audacity to object to the "pork" spending in the budget bill. Watkins drew into himself and joined the debate and said he would accommodate him by removing the legislator's project from the bill.

The objecting legislator melted and promised to say no more-if only Watkins would leave his project in the bill.

The civics lesson is simple. Some legislators will, at least sometimes, compromise their principles in order to have something in the budget that "delivers the goods" for their constituents, supporters, and friends.

The second battleground is harder to follow. Sometime a powerful legislator wants to accommodate supporters by getting state funds for a particular community project. But the legislator does not want to fight a public battle to get a specific spending item in the budget.

Instead, the legislator comes to an understanding with a government agency. The legislator says to the agency administrator something like this, "If I arrange for an increase in your budget, would you be sure that your office awards some of those funds to help this project that I am interested in?" The agency's administrator nods an okay.

The budget is then passed with the extra appropriation but without any reference to the project. Later, the agency awards the funds to the favorite project, without any public record of the legislator's involvement.

The discretionary funds we have been reading about take this process a big step further. More money and more projects are involved and use of the funds is to be managed at the future discretion of the top legislative leaders.

I could argue that leaders in the legislature need a little bit of "walking around money" to do their job, bring order to the legislature, and make things happen.

Even if I convinced you that it was a good idea, there is a problem. The North Carolina Constitution provides for a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. Once the legislature, acting together as a unit, passes a budget bill that directs how state government funds are to be spent, the executive department then has responsibility to implement the legislature's spending program. When the legislature tries to give to its leaders "discretion" over state spending, it intrudes into the constitutional responsibility of the executive.

So, if a legislative leader wants to get the authority to direct the spending of funds that have already been appropriated, here is what he or she ought to do: Run for Governor.


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which returns to the air on Sunday, April 3, at 5:00 p.m. with guest Bill Thompson, author of "Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs."

Programs coming up:

April 3: Bill Thompson, Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs.

April 10: Orrin Pilkey, How to Read a North Carolina Beach

April 17: Orin Starn, Ishi's Brain

April 24: Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

May 1: Dr. Gerald Bell, The Carolina Way

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Discretionary funds: Who's responsible?

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