General Assembly leaders included more than $47 million in earmarks – legislative-speak for local pet projects – in this year’s state budget, including funding for schools, nonprofits, sidewalks and YMCAs.
Many of the projects are located in districts represented by powerful legislators, most notably Senate budget writer and Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville. With about $8.3 million in earmarks directed to Onslow and Jones counties, Brown’s district received more earmark money than any other legislator’s.
The earmarks make up a tiny fraction of the $22.34 billion budget approved last week, and the legislature has set aside money for pet projects for decades, first under years of Democratic rule and more recently under the control of Republicans like Brown. But the practice still draws criticism that the money could be better spent on other priorities.
“There’s an inherent bias and unfairness built into it,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh said. “Even the rank and file in the majority don’t get to participate in this kind of legislation.”
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Republican budget writers said many of the projects were added in the final days of negotiations between the House and Senate. Last-minute revenue projections showed an additional $62 million in funds available to be spent over the next 12 months.
By that point, most of the budget was set and Senate leader Phil Berger was resolving final disagreements with House Speaker Tim Moore. They decided to split the $62 million and fund projects requested by legislators in their chambers.
“Most of the priorities that the House and the Senate had were pretty much in place in the budget at that point,” Brown said Thursday. “I know there were some Democrats’ projects that were also included. Any project that Sen. Berger knew about was considered.”
Brown got his request for $3 million for school construction needs – something typically funded by county governments – in Jones County. The money comes on top of the $11 million that Brown directed to Jones County last year.
He says the county, which is one of the state’s poorest, can’t afford to replace an aging high school with property tax revenue.
“Even with the money they received last year, they have had a hard time putting together that financial package to build the school,” Brown said.
Brown also secured $5 million for a regional career and technical education center in Onslow County, which he says “will help the whole region.” And he got $330,000 for the Montford Point Marine Memorial, which honors the first African-American members of the Marine Corps.
“That was the amount of money needed to finish that memorial,” Brown said. “That was an important memorial for the whole state.”
Blue argues that while the individual projects might be worthwhile, the process used to fund them is inappropriate.
“That’s the worst way to do it,” he said of the last-minute allocations selected by Moore and Berger. “If there was $62 million, there ought to have been $62 million of projects that had already been scrutinized, rather than something that people pull off the shelf. ... There are many ways it could have been better spent.”
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Northampton County Democrat, lobbied unsuccessfully to fund five early college programs in her impoverished northeastern North Carolina district. Instead, according to Blue, the New Hanover County school district got $1 million to plan a new technical high school. New Hanover is represented by Republican Sen. Michael Lee.
“The bigger issue ought to be, how do we make sure poor counties have some comprehensive program for meeting their needs?” Blue said.
In the House, senior budget writer Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, said leaders used much of their share of the $62 million for statewide priorities, such as a new $8 million State Bureau of Investigation plane and grants for arts and downtown programs.
“I think the House was more focused on particular programs as opposed to dividing it up quite the way the Senate did,” Dollar said.
Last year’s budget included a number of earmarks to the speaker’s Cleveland County district. And while no major earmarks were directed to Moore’s hometown this year, the House did include a number of local projects.
The House secured $1 million for a new museum facility in Winston-Salem, which is home to House budget writer Donny Lambeth. “That money should help leverage quite a bit more in private donations,” Dollar said.
Earmarks are also targeted to other urban centers, including $1 million for the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex and $1 million for sidewalk projects in the Charlotte suburbs of Matthews and Mint Hill.
The conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity said a grant for YMCAs was among the most troubling earmarks in this year’s budget.
The $450,000 grant will be split among YMCAs in Cary, Southeast Raleigh, Asheboro and Alamance County. “You’d be hard-pressed to find many YMCAs that receive public funding,” said AFP state director Donald Bryson.
Overall, though, Bryson said he’s noticed less “pork” spending in this year’s budget because legislators agreed to a low overall spending cap early in the process. But the practice is still concerning, he said.
“$250,000 there, a million here – that’s a lot of teachers, a lot of teacher assistants, a lot of textbooks that could be paid for ... or taxes that didn’t need to be collected in the first place,” he said.
State money for local projects
Here’s a sampling of the more than $47 million in local earmarks from this year’s budget:
Suburban Charlotte sidewalks: The wealthy Mecklenburg County towns of Mint Hill and Matthews will each get $500,000 for sidewalk projects. Donald Bryson of the conservative group Americans For Prosperity criticized the move: “They can afford their own sidewalks.”
Johnston County industrial sewers: The budget includes $6 million to build and improve sewer facilities that serve pharmaceutical, biotech and other companies located in Johnston’s “Research and Training Zone.”
Horse stables: The Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center in Lumberton will get $165,000 to build new horse stables.
Private medical training: Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville will get $7.7 million to partner with Campbell University Medical School – a private institution – to launch a residency program.
Anti-abortion nonprofit: Yadkinville’s New Hope Pregnancy Center will receive $50,000. The group operates a “Save the Storks” bus that discourages women from having abortions and offers medical care.