Budget oversight isn't easy for NC lawmakers

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Republicans now in charge of the North Carolina General Assembly are learning it's not easy to keep tabs on the executive branch of state government when lawmakers are officially out of town.

The GOP leadership that wrote up this year's $19.7 billion state budget has begun a new layer of government oversight by returning to Raleigh for monthly House-Senate appropriations committee meetings until the next budget-adjusting session in May. Lawmakers want to ensure their spending plan is getting carried out by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, and any deviations from it are properly scrutinized.

In years past, lawmakers have "passed the budget, we leave town and the bureaucracy does whatever the heck they please," said Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "The Legislature is the body that represents the people, and when we pass laws and legislation and budgets, we need to make sure that government follows our edict."

But as Brubaker, a House speaker in the mid-1990s, and Democrats previously in power discovered, new leaders have found out oversight panels are limited to using persuasion when they don't like how a governor is spending on activities not specifically identified in each year's spending plan.

"No committee in the General Assembly can act for the General Assembly when the General Assembly is not in session," said Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, a chief Senate budget-writer. Stevens made the remarks last week after the committee met for the first time and grappled with the Department of Transportation spending $5 million to renovate a building at the Global TransPark in Lenoir County to help a tenant at the industrial jet port generate at least 150 new jobs.

But Stevens reminded colleagues half-jokingly that the Legislature can have the last laugh when an agency doesn't respond to legislative criticisms through spending cuts: "They've got to come back next budget cycle, and retribution can be had."

While the Legislature has had formal oversight functions for a long time, the level of oversight has ebbed and flowed, depending on which political parties are in charge, whether government coffers were flush and the level of confidence in the governor. The General Assembly's primary oversight commission met just eight times in the past four years, when Democrats were in charge and fellow party members Mike Easley and Perdue were in the Executive Mansion.

Now with Republicans controlling both chambers for the first time in more than a century, it's not surprising they would want to keep closer tabs on a Democratic administration. While Perdue is required by the state constitution to carry out the spending plan, she didn't like the budget bill and vetoed it before it was ultimately enacted.

The Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, the chief oversight panel, is scheduled to meet next week for the second time in a month. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, has vowed to use the education oversight committee to evaluate whether local school layoffs were caused by the state budget or local educators. And the joint appropriations committee met last week for the first time.

Oversight committees can only require the executive branch to "consult" with them before making significant changes to state spending not specifically authorized in the budget, such as when creating new state jobs or starting capital projects. That means the governor's administration can't be officially barred from certain actions, even if oversight committee members oppose them.

"You don't have any power here at all to approve or disapprove anything," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, previously the House's senior chief budget-writer.

Up until the 1980s, committees on which legislators served — in particular, the now-defunct Advisory Budget Commission — actually could approve or reject similar adjustments when the General Assembly wasn't officially meeting, said Gerry Cohen, the Legislature's longtime bill drafting director. But a pair of court cases returned some powers to the governor.

Top leaders from the transportation and commerce departments and State Budget Office faced questions at last week's meeting defending the $5 million that was spent at the Global TransPark to secure an expansion by Spirit AeroSystems.

GOP lawmakers sounded frustrated when they learned the budget office had already started releasing the money, but it appeared the budget office followed the only rules they had to consult. Officials sent a memo to legislative leaders and budget-writers in August, and when they didn't hear back for 30 days, the consultation requirement was satisfied.

First-term Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, questioned why the money would go to TransPark when roads and bridges are in desperate need of repairs. "I would say at best that the consultation process is flawed," Tucker said.

Stevens said new consulting procedures were in place that would allow lawmakers to ask questions before a proposal is carried out.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said this additional oversight is happening because Republicans wanted to keep a closer view of what Perdue is doing. But he said it's good that the two branches have more interaction so that more misunderstandings can be averted.

Politics "is obviously what it's about," Nesbitt said, but "I'm one who believes you can't get too much information down here, and you can't get too much sunlight, so I certainly wouldn't protest them doing that."

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