State News

State government efficiency panel breaks down budget

Posted August 25, 2009 3:01 a.m. EDT
Updated August 25, 2009 7:52 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Beverly Perdue's panel to find ways to root out wasteful spending and reorganize state government met for the first time Tuesday, five months after members were appointed and two weeks after lawmakers passed a $19 billion budget.

The committee fulfills a campaign vow for Perdue, but it lacks the same inherent authority to force change as its predecessors.

Speaking to the new Budget Reform and Accountability Commission, Perdue said the state's fragile fiscal picture will continue for the near future, requiring additional ways to make government leaner and to eliminate outdated programs.

The first-year Democratic governor already has ordered a 5 percent cut in state programs days after she signed the budget into law.

"The state is going to face another challenge this time next year," Perdue told the commission, who are mostly familiar faces to state government, many with Democratic pedigrees. "I need for you all to help me find some resources that we can deploy in a more efficient and effective way."

Commission leaders want to make their first round of recommendations by February so they can be considered by lawmakers when they return in May for their next regular session. More long-term proposals are due by October 2010, which would allow lawmakers to take them up during the next long session of the legislature.

Nothing is off limits, the leaders said. Topics included existing efforts to examine the state's purchasing and contract method and budget procedures that make it difficult to evaluate whether programs are worth the money spent on them.

"I truly believe no one is here just to be sitting here and talking," said Hilda Pinnix-Ragland, the commission's co-chairwoman and head of the state community college board.

The group began by trying to break down the budget, line by line, to determine what programs are funded within each agency.

"I hope I have enough life left to do that, but it may be in the major program areas when you're looking for redundancies," said Norris Tolson, the commission's co-chairman and a former commerce, transportation and revenue secretary.

"We'll have a much better idea of how many government programs there are, how many are duplicates, how many are totally redundant, how many are totally obsolete, and we'll make a set of recommendations based on that list," Tolson said.

The panel held its first meeting nearly three years after Perdue first unveiled the concept, before her gubernatorial campaign began in 2007.

"It was never my intent to start it publicly until after the General Assembly had done their work," she said.

The governor ultimately wants lawmakers to vote yes or no, without amendments, on each of the ideas the panel offers – a method similar to the one Congress uses to vote on base closing recommendations.

Getting legislative leaders to cede authority could be a difficult undertaking in a state that became the last in the country to give its governor the power to veto legislation in 1997.

The veto "isn't used very often mechanically, but it's used as a threat any day," said Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, a co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who is not on the commission. "I can't see the legislature giving up its institutional powers (further) to another branch of the government."

Given the state's awful fiscal condition, lawmakers are still interested in what the commission suggested, Crawford said.

"If they come up with a good idea, I think the legislature would be anxious to implement any efficiencies at this point," he said.

Perdue said the panel can be effective immediately by offering recommendations that can be implemented quickly by her administration and other agencies without changing state law.

Without legislative cooperation, however, the panel is essentially advisory in nature and follows a long list of similar efficiency and waste-ridding panels dating back at least 20 years.

She said she'll take a two-pronged approach to push more dramatic changes the panel offers that require legislative approval.

"I will work really aggressively to have buy-in from the people of this state as we then work congruently to get buy-in from the (General) Assembly," she told reporters. "This is not easy."

Perdue said she's relying on the experience of the commission members in the private and public sectors, as well as academia, to help her push through reforms.

"I would want you in any battle that I'm in because I know you that well, and I expect at the end of the day this could very well end up being a battle of some sort," she told the panel.

A statewide government audit in the early 1990s generated more than 300 recommendations, of which 125 were carried out, said Anne Bander, assistant state budget officer. Then-Gov. Mike Easley created such a commission in 2001 and recommended $241 million in loophole closings and spending efficiencies to lawmakers.

Lawmakers ultimately approved some of the 2001 panel's recommendations on their own, such as removing the $1,500 sales tax cap on automobiles, but other suggestions often have been ignored.

"The problem here has never been a shortage of ideas about how to slim state government down. It's always been a shortage of political will," said John Hood, president of the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.

That's not to say creating the panel based on a base-closings model is a bad concept, Hood said. Lawmakers have trouble voting to delete wasteful state programs because they often have been initiated by their colleagues.

Perdue already asked for help last week from teachers and state employees by asking them by video to suggest ways the state can save money. The panel also has a Web page to take ideas from the public.

"At the end of the day, I expect to turn this basket upside down and make some things happen," she said.