Skip to comments.Public business without the public
Posted on 02/01/2004 7:25:11 AM PST by Huber
Elected officials like to talk about "doing the public's business." Implied in this basic precept is conducting public business with the consent of the governed. But there is an alarming and growing trend that neither seeks, nor seems to want public input.
For years, our legislature has added special provisions into the state budget at the last minute; programs and funding neither discussed, nor approved in committee, appearing mysteriously at the twelfth hour when budgets are ready for final approval. Lawmakers are increasingly funding prisons and other projects, such as improvements to a state aquarium, through unusual lease-purchase and other financing schemes, clearly designed to avoid the North Carolina Constitution's requirement of a vote of the people before public debt is incurred.
Local units of government are also guilty of such schemes. Call them certificates of participation (COPS), revenue bonds, self-liquidating bonds, tax increment financings, or whatever you like, the bottom line is that debt is incurred without approval of taxpayers. Whether overtly stated or not the full faith and credit of the unit of government is pledged; we will not accept a default of government debt.
Voters in Charlotte rose in anger over a new basketball coliseum and wisely defeated the proposal, forcing leaders to come back with better options. Greensboro citizens had similar concerns with a baseball stadium. The latest and perhaps most egregious example involves the proposed new convention center in downtown Raleigh that will cost citizens $180 million and include millions more in incentives to a private hotel operator. Yes, elected officials held obligatory public hearings on the issue, but the were largely perfunctory and never fully debated or sold citizens of the need for a new center, the best location for it, or the proper method for paying for the project.
The "we know what's best for you" attitude and "we're going to do this anyway" approach is bad public policy, borders on arrogance, and is a slippery slope sure to incur wrath and a resultant voter backlash.
Observers of government have been watching these trends escalate in recent years, fueled by a growing defeats in bond referendums by voters who have not been properly sold on the projects, do not have the same priorities, or do not wish to incur greater debt or higher taxes. So, rather than raise the public ire, elected officials quietly decide what to do, how to fund their goals, and proceed without the consent of the governed. The amount of public debt in our state is rising at a dismaying rate.
The framers of our Constitution had ultimate confidence that people would do the right thing when sold on the need and presented with sound plans for new projects. Throughout our state's history citizens have, in the main, voted positively (in good times and bad) when leaders took the time to sell projects and seek public consent.
Public business demands public involvement. As we enter a new election cycle voters should carefully consider this growing trend away from accountability by elected officials and demand more open discussion in government from those they elect.
Tom Campbell is a former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly TV issues discussion airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.
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