Passing the Buck

It’s not surprising the NC Association of Educators (which acts as a teacher’s union) would like to collect as much money as it can in dues. As a businessman, I understand that.

But based on the emails I’ve been receiving from teachers about pay raises, and an article just published in the Hickory Daily Record, the union also has a fundamental conflict of interest: It represents both teachers and school administrators.

Whoever heard of a union that was clever enough to represent both management and labor – at the same time?

Consider the article in the Hickory Daily Record. It reports teachers in Catawba County earn an average of $43,000 (not including benefits like healthcare and pension). The Record also listed the top administrators’ salaries – and all were earning over $100,000.

How is that a conflict?

The NCAE naturally wants teachers to be paid more – and one productive way to do that is to reduce administrative costs. But, of course, the NCAE can’t support that kind of reform because some of its members are administrators. The NCAE is caught straddling the fence. That’s the conflict of interest.

The NCAE’s solution? It passes the buck – it says, Let’s not cut anyone. Let’s give everyone a raise. Of course, that works out fine for the NCAE. But what about taxpayers?

After the Flood


In the dry jargon of weather prognosticators it’s called a 1000 year event – a storm so severe it happens only once in 1000 years. Well, it happens we had a 1000 year event in Catawba County two weeks ago. A storm dropped five inches of rainfall in less than an hour. And caused floods powerful enough to take apart a perfectly good highway, leaving a gaping crater where there was once a road traveled by thousands of people.

The storm, I guess, was Mother Nature run amuck. But what happened next was a study of human quirks.

When local officials frantically set to work to repair a dozen washed out roads and bridges, they ran straight into an unexpected hurdle. They were informed by officials at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Raleigh that, thousand year storm or no storm,  before the first track hoe could begin rebuilding roads they were going to have to go through the normal, routine, business-as-usual state government process of obtaining the appropriate environmental permits – which can take weeks.

I thought, What we need here is a little old-fashioned common sense. After all, when you have a thousand year storm the normal business-as-usual rules don’t exactly apply. It’s a time to cut red tape.

So I called two state officials in the Governor’s office. Neither called me back.

I called Mitch Gillespie, who now serves as Deputy Secretary of the Department – of Environment and Natural Resources – which controls the permits. After I talked to Mitch a polite lady called. Then we exchanged emails. She explained the Department of Transportation and the State Land Quality Officer and the State Environmental Assistance Coordinator would be “happy to provide information” and attend meetings and that there seemed to be “several variables” to sort out to “determine what is required.”

It was courteous to a fault but wasn’t quite reaching the level of common sense.

I wrote back, “What is it you don’t understand about the meaning of the word ‘Emergency.’”

I also sent a copy to the Governor, the Secretary of DENR and the Secretary of Transportation.

In a matter of minutes I heard back from John Skvarla, the new head of DENR. He was already at work cutting the red-tape.

That’s the kind of common sense you need when you have a 1000 year storm.

I’ll keep you posted on what happens next.

2013 Education Funding

There’s something for almost everyone to dislike in the state budget. I’ve heard from folks saying legislators spent too much or spent too little but no one has said the spending was just right.

A little perspective may help.

A time bomb went off under the budget (not once but twice during the last six months) called Medicaid. Medicaid spending exploded, soaring to an additional $1.25 billion. Like kudzu, the cost of Medicaid grew like crazy.

Wait, you might say, Medicaid is a Washington program. It is. But the state has to pay part of the cost and, this session, years of bungling and mismanagement flew home to roost.

Another issue received little attention – no one demonstrated or protested against the state’s ‘unfunded liabilities.’ But it’s a cold hard fact the state is obligated to pay $3.7 billion more than it has already to the State Retirement Fund to provide pensions for teachers and state employees. The state is also obligated to pay state employees’ future medical care – and that’s another whopping $29.6 billion ‘unfunded liability.’

Despite those hurdles, the new state budget spends more money on education than has ever been spent on education in North Carolina ($11.5 billion out of a total $20.6 billion budget). I know that’s not what Democrats like Reverend William Barber, who led the ‘Moral Monday’ protests, are saying. But what Republicans actually did this session was slow the increase in state spending – which is hardly a radical change.

The General Assembly cut taxes. The Democrats label it a tax cut for the rich. But, here again, the political rhetoric is wrong. The legislature cut taxes for everyone from single working mothers to small businessmen to retirees.

The Teachers Association doesn’t approve of the legislature ending teacher tenure – but most people in North Carolina are paid based on how well they do their job. Now teachers will now be awarded contracts based on the same principle. That’s a step in the right direction – it’s preferable to reward state employees and teachers based on how well they do their job, rather than give blanket pay raises.

The legislature funded new technologies to schools (like digital textbooks) and laid the groundwork for a new high school curriculum to teach more about technology, engineering, and other high-employment fields.

We also launched an innovative Opportunity Scholarships program to allow low-income parents who are unhappy with their children’s schools to seek other schools. The Democrats claim that will mean less money for public schools. But that’s more political rhetoric. It costs an average of $9,200 to educate a child in public schools. The maximum Opportunity Scholarship is $4,200. When a child accepts an opportunity scholarship and attends a private school, the difference ($ 5,000) stays with the public schools – meaning they have more net income.

I’ve heard from a lot of unhappy state employees and teachers – who did not receive a pay raise. I don’t know the right number for teacher’s pay but, right now, with an anemic economy it isn’t a time to raise taxes on struggling families. Hopefully, we have laid the groundwork for a stronger economy – which is the key to a brighter future.

Naturally, there were a lot of political charges thrown around during the session. Here are the key facts: The legislature didn’t cut spending. But it did cut how fast spending is increasing. It didn’t pass a tax cut for the rich – it cut taxes on almost everyone. Those aren’t, as some Democrats have charged, radical changes. They are reasonable steps in the right direction.

Some good advice

postcard

(click the postcard for a larger version)

Above is a local postcard Suzanne ran across while going through some family memorabilia. In a century, we have moved from our financial institutions telling us to save to now telling us to get, and use, all the credit we can. This will not end well and having the government behave the same way only makes it worse.

The Rural Center: The Wrong Kind of Politics

If a group of politicians were setting out to build themselves an empire, it’d be helpful for them to have two things: Plenty of taxpayer money available to pass out to make new friends, and a high-sounding name for their endeavor – which, according to the News and Observer, is about exactly what happened twenty-six years ago when Democrats in the General Assembly created The Rural Center.

With Republican Jim Martin in the Governor’s Mansion, Democrats leading the General Assembly decided, instead of letting Martin get credit for handing out checks for ‘Economic Development Grants,’ they’d set up a legislatively controlled nonprofit and pass out the taxpayers’ money themselves. Then, adding a layer of political camouflage to what was an old-fashioned pork barrel fund, they proclaimed their group had a noble mission – to create jobs in rural areas – and named it The Rural Center.

Before long it was up and running – headed by CEO Billy Ray Hall – and what happened next worked like this:

  • Democratic legislators voted to send millions in taxpayer dollars to the The Rural Center.
  • Over at The Rural Center, Billy Ray Hall paid close attention to the wishes of legislators when he gave out ‘grants’
  • The cycle repeated over and over.

Billy Ray Hall had the best and arguably one of the most powerful jobs in state government – giving away money, which helped generate a lot of friends. Since its inception, The Rural Center and Mr. Hall have given away tens of millions of dollars in grants at the request of NC Senators and NC Representatives.

The process worked so well that even after Republican Governor Martin handed the Governor’s Mansion keys to Democrat Jim Hunt, the Democrats running the General Assembly saw no reason for change. Better yet, it became a model for more ways to help their friends using more economic development funds like The Golden Leaf Foundation and The Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Over the years, in the name of creating jobs in rural communities, The Rural Center poured $24 million in grants to the center of non-ruralness, Wake County.

It poured millions into highly profitable companies that didn’t need help – like Walmart which benefited from $6 million in Rural Center grants. Grants even included a golf course near Southern Pines and a video sweepstakes company in Greenville.

The News & Observer illustrated the mechanism by including the tale of one legislator that helped arrange a $300,000 Rural Center grant for a project in his district. The project did not strictly comply with Mr. Hall’s existing rules but those rules were bent and the grant was made and, according to the newspaper, the legislator raised $6,500 in campaign donations from partners in the development.

It all rolled along fine for over two decades as an example of good ole boy politics and pork barrel spending at its best until a stroke of bad luck landed Billy Ray Hall on the front page of the News and Observer in an exposé headlined, “Politicians, powerful touch NC Rural Center cash.”

To give Hall credit, he tried to make the best of a bad situation, dressing up decades of pork barrel spending as dedication to helping rural North Carolina – as Hall told the News and Observer, “I eat, sleep, and breathe rural North Carolina.”

But the bottom line is simpler: The Rural Center is living proof pork barrel spending isn’t the best way to create jobs in rural areas.

Now that the News and Observer’s story has put the program in front of us, this looks like a good time to end this particular pork barrel right now and take the Rural Center’s $170 million in state funds which, unlike other state agencies, are in its own account and not controlled by the NC Treasury.

The Governor, in his budget, proposed cutting The Rural Center’s funding 60% this year – giving it another $6 million. The Senate then cut the funding to zero. The State House went in the other direction, increasing the center’s funding by $36 million over two years.

There’s no doubt rural communities have very real needs and some legislators are concerned eliminating The Rural Center will leave rural communities short of friends. But pork barrel politics is not the answer to the challenges facing rural North Carolina. Let’s get the good ole boy politics and pork-barreling out of the way – then we can work on fixing the real problems.

It’s time for Republicans to shut down The Rural Center.

We’re for Free Markets… Except…

In my five months in the General Assembly, it seems to me that the most interesting dramas occur when long-time business-as-usual collides head-on with new technology that reshapes our economic markets. Rules and policies designed in the 1950s completely miss the finer points of a society built on high technology- kind of a Mad Men meets Amazon story.

Recently, a little known California electric car maker happened to, oddly enough, land squarely in the middle of such a political brawl in the State Legislature.

Tesla Motors makes a product that you could just as accurately call a computer on wheels as an automobile. However you label them, after they sold eighty electric cars in North Carolina over the Internet, the Automobile Dealers Association strolled over to the State Senate and asked its friends to pass a bill saying cars can only be sold through car dealerships.

That left Senators, like Majority Leader Harry Brown, who’s a car dealer, facing a tough question: Do I stand up for my free market ideals – or stand with my friends?

The temptation of helping their friends proved irresistible – free market ideals lost and, in the blink of an eye, the Senate passed a bill to stop Tesla Motors dead in its tracks.

Now the bill (and the Automobile Dealers lobbyists) is headed to the State House to find out how State Representatives respond to temptation.

Teen Leadership Newton 2013

Representative Andy Wells and Senator Austin Allran met with Teen Leadership Newton 2013 in the General Assembly Appropriations Committee Room in April, 2013.

Two States

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.

Salesman of the Year

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.

Medicaid

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