by Paige Terryberry
Senior Analyst for Fiscal Policy, John Locke Foundation
Local governments have unique challenges that differ from that of the state overall. Some state funding does flow to statewide efforts in local areas. Yet, in the same way that the federal government should not subsidize state activity, state government need not fund local government projects or projects that fall outside the government’s scope altogether.
And yet, state spending on local projects is, unfortunately, politics as usual for North Carolina.
“Pork,” short for “pork-barrel spending,” refers to money elected officials allocate to local pet projects to bolster their political standing on the taxpayer dime. The 2022 state budget, written by members of the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper, contains a significant number of earmarks for local projects. The most recent biennium budget, signed into law last November, was also loaded with pork.
Local projects need not be funded by statewide taxpayers. Pork spending is politicians choosing winner and loser localities to receive funds, at the expense of taxpayers statewide.
Many of these projects sound nice, and some would benefit the local community. Yet to pay for them with state funds is inappropriate and a misuse of your tax dollars. These projects should be funded by local governments, if at all. And while some of these projects involve one-time expenditures, which are less of a burden compared to recurring commitments, many should not exist in the state budget at all.
North Carolinians on the left and right are similarly outraged by pork spending in state budgets.
Legislators should always handle taxpayer dollars with discretion and respect. In the end, money is always better spent in the hands of the taxpayer who earned it.
The budget adjustments, now law, contain 22 pages of local spending on capital projects found in the money report. Some examples include:
The adjusted budget sends more than $38 million to 10 local airports: ranging in costs from $450,000 to NCDOT for the Cape Fear Regional Jetport (this should be NCDOT funded) to $8 million for the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport. The last budget allocated more than $125 million to 18 airports.
Ten community colleges received handouts, totaling $24 million.
Local courthouses, dams, hospitals, K-12 athletic facilities, parks and recreation departments and historic sites received generous, yet sporadic funding.
Fifteen pages worth of pork fell into the category of “other.” This included community parks, fire departments, police departments, grants to cities and towns, and miscellaneous projects. Some examples include:
Lawmakers are adamant that state funds for local projects is good government. In the new budget, they took additional action to avoid transparency: lawmakers established a Local Project Reserve to “make funds available for local project expenditures.” The budget allocated an additional $80.1 million in taxpayer dollars to this Reserve for this fiscal year alone.
The Local Project Reserve explicitly acknowledges spending state money on local projects. And by creating a separate funding bucket, the $80.1 million is not included in the total General Fund appropriations, in turn serving to disguise the state budget’s true spending number.
Within the Reserve, appropriations are varied in terms of their level of specificity. The Reserve appears to be a catch-all, with some appropriations not yet tied to specific localities or projects. For example, the Reserve sends $25,000 to the UNC Board of Governor and $6.9 million to the Department of Public Instruction.
Most appropriations do include specifics, and such examples include:
Some of this money is going to charitable causes. Pregnancy centers, opioid abatement, assistance for the elderly, and prison ministries received funding, for example. A $1 million grant for a downtown river walk may be easier to criticize than a $1 million grant directed to a county Senior Center, but legislators must recall the purpose of taxpayer dollars. The purpose of levying taxes is to raise revenue for the proper functions of government.
There is an opportunity for local government or private sector investment in many of these items that the state is subsidizing.
Moreover, lawmakers again circumvented the traditional budget adjustment process this year, stymieing opportunity for open debate, the foundation for sound policy.
Spending taxpayer money on pork erodes precious institutional trust.
In the aftermath of this budget becoming law, the General Assembly leaders lauded themselves on their cautious approach to save, not spend. The savings are indeed noteworthy. But so is the superfluous spending.
The nature of politics will make it hard to eliminate pork as legislators are applauded for bringing funding to projects back home. Yet greater transparency and debate are needed. Legislators should be held accountable for their requested, local projects which must face public scrutiny.
The “Inkso Rule” demands such transparency. If members of the General Assembly truly believe their projects should be included in the budget bill, they should not shy away from taking responsibility for them by name.