- The state budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2019-20 – passed by the legislature and vetoed by the governor – contains a staggering $125 million in inappropriate spending for local pet projects.
- As shown in the map below, the distribution of the spending reveals the unfair nature of using state taxpayer dollars to fund local projects.
- If the legislature fails to override the veto of this budget, any new budget should not rely on even more pork bribery to garner political support.
Over 350 inappropriate spending projects totaling over $125 million are crammed into this year’s state budget proposal. This funding, earmarked for specific local projects, is commonly known as “pork barrel spending,” or just “pork.”
Pork barrel spending is a term coined in the early twentieth century that refers to the money that elected officials secure for their pet projects in order to claim political victories on the taxpayer dime.
For the sake of this estimation, a budget line item is considered pork if it goes to a specific locality or non-profit in a manner inconsistent with the state’s typical obligations. For example, Madison County received a $188,305 earmark for election equipment. Counties are typically responsible for funding elections equipment, so this funding is considered pork.
Many pork projects manifest themselves as local projects, including parks, museums, playgrounds, or libraries. Specific projects in this year’s budget include money for a farmer’s market in Scotland County, the Cleveland County Fair, and an Aquatics Center in Gaston County. At least four towns received grants with no specification of their use whatsoever: Town of Columbia (Tyrrell County, $40,000), Town of Midway (Davidson, $100,000), Town of Kernersville (Forsyth, $100,000) and Village of Clemmons (Forsyth, $100,000).
Besides localities, nonprofits also received a considerable share of the state’s pork spending this year. Nonprofits play an important role in the civil society of our state. Non-profits are often more in touch with local community needs and are better able to adapt to meet those needs. Thus, non-profit organizations are frequently better suited to assist with community problems than government could ever be. But it is outright favoritism to single out certain non-profits for state appropriations – no matter how admirable their work –without having them go through the proper grant process. While the process does add a layer of bureaucracy, it is needed in order to safeguard taxpayer money against cronyism and to ensure that the money is distributed in a transparent way, with the appropriate accountability for results.
The $125 million total is likely a conservative estimate. Pork is often used for political purposes, trading funding amongst legislators in order to build support for the budget overall. This year, some funding that was used in horse-trading did not meet our definition of pork. For example, it is well-known that the expansion of certain PhD programs at North Carolina A&T University was included in the budget to garner support for key Democratic senators. However, since the funding was the expansion of a current, recurring state commitment, it was not included in the total. Other items, such as funding for state-sponsored museums, the zoo, or symphony, could also be considered inappropriate state earmarks. For the sake of consistency, they are also not included in the estimate.
When you map out where pork is distributed, some troubling – although unsurprising – trends emerge (See full map below). The pork-heavy counties tend to align with prominent legislative leaders’ or budget-writers’ districts. Duplin and Sampson Counties, represented by Senate Appropriations Chair Brent Jackson, received $7.9 million and $3.6 million in pork projects, respectively. The largest cluster of pork occurs in the counties to the west of Charlotte, with Lincoln receiving $5.1 million, Gaston getting $5.4 million, and Cleveland getting $6 million. This area has prominent representation in the legislature, including House Senior Appropriations Chair Jason Saine, Senate Appropriations Chair Kathy Harrington, and House Speaker Tim Moore, respectively.
Other pork-heavy areas may hint at the increased horse-trading with Democratic legislators in an attempt to garner support for the budget. For example, Guilford county received $5.5 million, with Durham getting $7.8 million and Edgecombe receiving $4.6 million. Those counties tend to have more Democratic representation, and thus could signal an attempt by Republican leadership to buy votes for the budget at large.
The discussion over pork spending is especially timely as the budget stand-off between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper continues. After vetoing the budget in late June, Cooper submitted what he is calling a “compromise proposal” on July 9. House Speaker Tim Moore refutes that term, saying the new proposal would spend $400 million more than Cooper’s original budget.
One thing Cooper’s new budget did agree to? All of the pork from the conference report.
If the legislature is unable to override Cooper’s veto of the current budget, they should not attempt to pass a new budget if that would mean giving away even more taxpayer money to buy Democrat legislative votes. Due to the state’s continuing resolution policy, the state budget continues at the previous year’s spending levels – minus nonrecurring spending – if a new budget is not passed.
The lack of a new budget would mean no new pork spending at all this year. When you consider the absurdity of some of the projects and the inappropriate nature of pork in general, this is not a bad thing for North Carolina taxpayers.
At the end of the day, the biggest problem with pork is that it represents a willingness to use taxpayer money for political gain, either back in the legislator’s home district or as a negotiation tool within the legislature. Civitas Executive Vice President Brian Balfour summed up well the problems with pork when he said:
“Such a significant number of earmarks, while not adding up to a major percentage of the budget in dollar terms, raises legitimate concerns about political patronage in which representatives direct state funds to local projects in exchange for political support.”
For more information, please explore the following interactive map and view the corresponding chart below. Chart and map content pulled from the “Joint Conference Committee Report on the Current Operations Appropriations Act of 2019,” which can be found here.