It's an all-too-common scenario. A civic-minded citizen gets elected to the General Assembly on the promise to fight special interests and represent the little guy. But after a term or two, the little guy finds he often can't get to his local legislator because the activist-turned-politician's day is filled with meetings attended by - you guessed it - special interests.
Why does this happen?
The problem is, the little guy is just that - little. Without big bucks or a blocof votes to dangle, individual citizens are essentially powerless outside of Election Day. To gain collective political muscle, the little guy is urged to join a like-minded organization (aka special interest) to ensure his voice will be heard in Raleigh. But whether left, center or right, within these organizations, the power of an individual's voice is often tied to the thickness of one's wallet.
Sadly, this scenario is a fact of life in this golden-rule era of politics in which those with the gold make the rules. So how does the little guy get the power our Founding Fathers envisioned him having?
Simple. You make his gold count. Inadvertently, N.C. House Reps. Sarah Stevens, John Blust, Dale Folwell and George Cleveland might have provided the roadmap.
They've introduced a bill (HB 877) that would allow taxpayers to donate all or part of their state income tax refunds to the departments of cultural resources, health and human services, public instruction, public safety, the University of North Carolina System and the general fund. Some pundits think the real purpose of this bill is to provide fiscal conservatives with the ultimate punch line: If you think government needs more money, then give it yours.
I don't think this idea goes far enough. With a little tweak, this bill could provide sweeping democratic reform that would transform the little guy into the most important person in North Carolina. Imagine the power citizens would acquire if they could designate their state income tax payments - not just their refunds - to a specific public purpose.
Using the bill's proposed categories, here's how I would dole out my state income taxes: K-12 education, 25 percent; HHS, 25 percent; public safety, 20 percent; higher education, 15 percent; and 15 percent would go into the general fund. Cultural resources would receive none of my tax payments, but I would gladly pay increased fees to visit museums and historical sites.
The real beauty of taxpayer-designated funding is that it would force lobbyists and advocates who believe they deserve a greater share of public money to make their case on Main Street, not just on Jones Street.
Some professional advocates scoff at this idea. They don't believe common folks have the sense to determine how public monies should be spent. Reacting to HB 877, Rob Schofield of the progressive N.C. Policy Watch wrote, "Does anyone really think average North Carolinians have the time or energy or background necessary to allow them to make informed decisions about which core function of government deserves their support? The answer is no, of course not."
Schofield is wrong. Every day, the judicial branch relies on average North Carolinians to make informed courtroom judgments in civil and criminal cases. If the judiciary can trust the average Joe and Jane to decide complicated malpractice lawsuits and embezzlement and murder cases, certainly the legislative branch can trust a taxpayer to allocate his or her own tax payments.
If a taxpayer believes as does Schofield that legislators and lobbyists are best qualified to spend public funds, this reform program offers them a solution as well. They can designate all of their taxes to the general fund.
Reps. Stevens, Blust, Folwell and Cleveland's legislation allowing citizens to designate their tax refunds is a good start at fundamental reform. They should amend the bill to include earmarking of taxes as well. Increasingly, the true power of people isn't exercised by those at the ballot box, but by those who hold the government's purse strings.