HILL: Budget dinosaurs

This July 24, 2013, photo shows the architecture and design of the rotunda from the first floor at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C. It’s been nearly 175 years since work was completed on the Capitol and now, after all these years, the architectural plans of the historic structure are nearly in hand. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Ronald Reagan used to say “governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear.” The agencies running those programs are “the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth” he would add which always generated laughs from the audience ― because they know it is true. 

The worst part about government spending is that a ton of it at every level is wasteful and unnecessary. Elected representatives and senators in Washington or Raleigh historically have not done a great job of overseeing existing programs since many only serve for a short period of time or don’t serve on the budget committee. Long-time staff know where the money is in budgets, not short-term members in the General Assembly in what is considered a “part-time job” in North Carolina.  

Eternal life for government programs leads the left and their cronies in the mainstream media to endlessly, and mindlessly, carp about “raising more taxes!” to pay for more spending.  No new taxes are needed to pay for any expansion in government services at any level of government because of budget dinosaurs which live on and on and on from days gone by. 

Case in point from the state budget of North Carolina circa 1973. During the OPEC oil embargo back in the seventies, state prisons were heated primarily by fuel oil. The cost for fuel oil skyrocketed. State budget writers at the legislature started to put money aside to deal with the fluctuating price of oil assuming it would always go up. 

It became a recurring appropriation and was automatically included in successive biennial budgets.  

Fortunately for the country, the oil crisis didn’t last forever as it seemed it would. But the prison heating oil adjustment fund did. Each year more money went into the account and every year the price of oil came down.  

Flash forward 20 years to the landmark 1994 elections when Republicans finally gained a majority in the state house for the first time since Reconstruction. With a new majority comes new chairmen of committees with a new set of eyeballs and mindset.  

During the initial budget negotiations, there was a miscalculation which resulted in a million-dollar gap in funding. One staff member casually remarked they had a way around the million-dollar hole since they knew about the reserve fund. It may have amounted to as much as $20 million which staff had kept going in case they needed it to plug any gap in the budget under previous Democrat leadership.  

The new Republican chairman insisted on knowing where the money was going to come from to cover the shortage. The staff reluctantly revealed the existence of the prison heating oil fund which had outlived its usefulness by over a decade. The chairman made sure the money was returned to the general fund immediately and that no future appropriations would be made into the prison fuel oil fund.  

Another example of a budget dinosaur was the domestic workers rehabilitation fund. When North Carolina became a no-fault divorce state in 1965, several legislators became concerned about the employment prospects of recently divorced women. They set up a fund to supplement various training programs for divorced women such as secretarial skills given the paucity of opportunities for women in professional life at the time. They funded the program by attaching a fee that was paid as a result of divorce cases which again built a multimillion-dollar fund over time. Several old school lawyers would complain about this fee well into the 21st century before it was finally repealed but not after the “domestic workers rehabilitation fund” had paid for a lot of government beyond secretarial training for divorced women. 

North Carolina’s annual consolidated budget is well over $52 billion in state and federal funds expended each year. Typical budget cutters aim for 1% savings across the board which, in North Carolina’s case, would amount to about $500 million per year. 

Finding the dinosaurs in the state budget could pay for any new program of such a magnitude without raising taxes or “slashing essential services to the bone” as detractors would say. 

Some dinosaurs indeed have eternal life in government budgets everywhere.