It’s not unusual for governors to create special committees or blue ribbon commissions to find ways to make state government more efficient. Usually the initiative comes in their first year in office or in the midst of an economic downturn to reassure voters that they are committed to rooting out waste and duplication and saving taxpayer money.
Governor Pat McCrory included his version of the panel, the North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform initiative, or NC GEAR, in the budget he submitted to the General Assembly last year. Lawmakers approved $4 million to fund the effort.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Everybody wants a more efficient government and there’s always room for improvement, though most of the panels seem to be designed as much for the publicity governors receive when they create them as for actually identifying inefficiencies to free up funding for education or other important programs.
Judging by the people involved with McCrory’s efficiency group, it could prove to be far more dangerous than irrelevant.
A recent Associated Press story noted that the initiative will be overseen by State Budget Director Art Pope and a key staff member will be Joe Coletti from the budget office.
Coletti used to work for the John Locke Foundation, one of the conservative think tanks funded largely by Pope’s family foundation. Coletti wrote often about the state budget and authored the group’s alternative budget proposals.
Among the recommendations Coletti made in the name of efficiency in 2009 were deep cuts to NC PreK and the abolition of Smart Start, increased class size at public schools to cut teacher positions, and steep tuition increases at universities and community colleges.
He proposed abolishing the widely recognized N.C. Housing Trust Fund, slashing Medicaid services and coverage for adults and children, cutting funding for children with autism, and even slashing funding for foster care and adoption assistance. The alternative budget also proposed replacing Medicaid entirely with a block grant program.
Coletti wanted to cut funding for the overcrowded court system, sharply reduce the number of workplace safety inspectors, and end state funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
And maybe most importantly, his alternative budget called for a constitutional amendment to arbitrarily limit state spending based on a flawed formula that would force deep cuts to education, human services and other vital state programs.
But Coletti is not writing fringe budget proposals for a right-wing think tank any more. He is now inside the state government he loathes and playing a key role in a new initiative to dismantle it.
It’s also worth noting that the communications chief of NC GEAR is the former Mecklenburg County Republican Party Chair Lee Teague whose background appears to be in real estate, not communications or budget policy.
Coletti told the Associated Press that NC GEAR is a “once in a lifetime opportunity to improve state government.”
And that is the problem. Coletti thought his 2009 budget proposal would have “improved” state government too, calling its draconian cuts to schools and human services “reasonable and responsible” when they were neither.
Looking for efficiencies is one thing. Radically dismantling vital state institutions that make an important difference in people’s lives is quite another — but that has long been the troubling goal of the folks Governor McCrory has put in charge of running NC GEAR.
Chris Fitzsimon is a co-founder of NC Policy Watch.