The Commerce Department has just announced an agreement to pay MetLife $94 million – a record ‘incentive’ – to create 2,600 jobs in Charlotte and Cary. 2,600 jobs is no small achievement. But there is a subtle irony at work here too: Because these jobs are going to the two places in North Carolina that need jobs least. Charlotte and Raleigh-Cary, according to our own Employment Security Division, are now at or over their all-time record employment levels.
North Carolina was once a state of widely dispersed small towns and vibrant local communities. Today, with the evolving economy, we’ve become two states. Our two largest metropolitan areas are racing ahead to see who can become the next Atlanta – while, at the same time, the rest of the state is languishing, losing jobs (as the accompanying chart shows).
The tremendous growth in Raleigh and Charlotte is no accident. In part it is due to 21st Century economic trends. But it is also a direct result of state policies.
Every day in Raleigh bills cross my desk with the unmentioned and often unnoticed effect of transferring money and power from smaller communities to larger ones – and the latest incentive package is just a recent example.
Living outside the two major metropolitan areas, I have seen firsthand the consequences of the job exodus from small towns. The challenges facing communities like ours are obvious. And now it’s time to step back and have a serious public conversation about these policies.
Living in a fast-growing, vibrant metropolitan area has its appeals. But I would argue small towns have a unique charm of their own and a unique quality of life that, in many ways, is preferable to modern suburban sprawl.
After all, millions of North Carolinians live in small towns and communities – if they wanted to live in Atlanta, they would have moved there.
After a month of listening to fairly predictable debates in the State House, last week in the Commerce Committee I finally got a good old-fashioned surprise.
By custom, when a House Committee considers a State Senator’s bill, the Senator’s invited to speak to the committee. So, last Wednesday, the Senator who sponsored Senate Bill visited the Commerce Committee to explain the virtues of his bill.
Now, this Senator is not your average legislator -- he’s one of the most powerful leaders in the General Assembly. He’s got a quick, sharp sense of humor but he’s also a straight-talking man who’s a master of hardball legislative politics.
He stepped to the podium and started by telling a joke but, after that, he didn’t mince words: He told the Committee bluntly the changes it had made to his bill were completely unacceptable to him, said he was particularly disturbed the House had deleted a part of his bill that removed 12 Superior Court judges from office, then got down to brass tacks challenging the wisdom in that decision.
That was a bombshell.
Someone on the Committee, the Senator was surmising (and he specifically mentioned lawyers), wanted to keep those judges in office for suspicious reasons.I looked around the committee room, watching the senior Members, waiting for someone to ask the Senator, Exactly who on this committee has a conflict of interest? But no one said a word.
I’ve been in business for over 35 years and have closed my share of sales. It has never occurred to me to approach a prospective customer with an opening statement suggesting he/she was in error. So my first big surprise was that something like that worked and worked so well – because the Committee proceeded to reverse course and undo several of the changes it had earlier made in the Senator’s bill.
That’s where the Bill stood until the next morning when it was sent to the House Rules Committee -- which promptly put changes back into the bill. Then it sailed onto the House floor and passed – but that’s not the end of the story.
Now, the Senate Bill is going to a Conference Committee where Representatives are going to sit down eye-to-eye across a table from the Senator (and his colleagues) to iron out the differences between the Bill the House did pass and the version of the bill the Senator wants passed.
After over 35 years as a businessman, I have learned – the hard way – that at times, with the best of intentions, you wake up one morning to find you’ve gotten yourself into a new business that doesn’t work. It looked like a good idea when you started, but, after you rolled up your sleeves and went to work, you found out it either wasn’t what you expected, was beyond your ability or expertise, or was just a bad idea.
That’s called a ‘learning experience' – and that’s what came to mind when I read the Observer report that “A state audit of the $13 billion Medicaid budget revealed a rat’s nest of problems from overspending, bloated administrative costs and violations of the law.”
State Auditor Beth Wood – a Democrat – was equally blunt. In her audit, Wood reported the Medicaid Department has spent $1.4 billion more than its budget over the last three years and its overhead costs are $180,000 higher per year than other states our size.
In other words, after 12 years of mismanagement and neglect by two Democratic Governors (Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue), we have a multi-billion dollar train wreck on our hands – that should give even the staunchest believer in more government a moment’s pause.
And now, to complicate the problem further, the Obama Administration would like the state to expand Medicaid by 31%.
But does that make common sense – to expand a program that has turned out to be the poster child for government mismanagement by billions of dollars?
Here’s what does make sense: Fix what’s broke first. Give newly elected Governor McCrory time to fix a dysfunctional Medicaid Department and create a new system that works for both the recipients and the taxpayers. Then, after the problems are fixed, we can argue over whether we should expand Medicaid 31%.
Observer Article: Audit - State overspent Medicaid budget by $1.4B
The other day I received an email from a lady I know in Hickory, asking me to look at a petition she’d signed opposing ending liberal arts classes at UNC. I clicked on the link to a website, read the petition, sat back and thought, The Governor wants to dismantle the liberal arts program at UNC?
Next I clicked on the News & Observer’s website to see just what the Governor had said – according to the newspaper, during a radio interview he’d explained he wanted to change funding of state universities to emphasize preparing students for jobs. He’d only said a critical word about two courses: Teaching basketball players at UNC Swahili (a course criticized during the athletics scandal) and ‘Gender Studies’ (which he doubted was touchstone to a job). Then he’d added, “I do believe in liberal arts education. I got one.”
Then I scrolled down the page to read the comments on the newspaper’s website and the world turned upside down into an elbow-throwing political brawl with people saying things like ‘the Governor’s against teaching liberal arts’ because he wants people to be idiots so they’ll vote for him. Sometime after that, 10,000 people had signed an Internet petition to save liberal arts programs at UNC – which, as far as I can tell, no one ever meant to ban in the first place.
When I finished reading, I wrote the lady back and explained the good news was the liberal arts are safe at UNC, and the bad news was we have a problem with political debates on the Internet – which are dysfunctional.