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N.C. GOP Eliminate Spending Watchdog for Partisan Staff

Republican state lawmakers dissolved a nonpartisan group that ensured tax dollars were properly spent in February 2021. But with tax revenues flush, it may be time to bring back the division.

(TNS) — In February 2021, Republican state lawmakers dissolved a nonpartisan watchdog division that made sure tax dollars were properly spent and replaced it with partisan House and Senate staff controlled by legislative leaders and tasked with similar duties.

Two years later, oversight is weaker and it’s likely that many opportunities have been missed to save taxpayers millions of dollars by rooting out misspending. It’s time to bring the watchdog back, especially when tax revenues are flush and billions of dollars in new federal spending are flowing into North Carolina.

Republicans eliminated the Program Evaluation Division (PED), through which a 14-member, nonpartisan staff had exposed and stopped millions of dollars in wasteful government spending. Division staff members were replaced by partisan staff who help with oversight reviews by the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations, commonly known as Government Ops.

The commission is co-chaired by Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, and its membership is overwhelmingly Republican.

The PED was created by legislation in 2007 to do ongoing evaluations of state agencies and local government. The staff reported to the bipartisan Joint Program Evaluation Committee. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said the division was “one of the best in the country at doing what it was designed to do.”

According to its own accounting, the division from 2008 to 2021 recommended $172.2 million in recurring savings and $121.7 million in non-recurring savings to the state. The recommendations that were adopted resulted in $38.6 million in recurring savings and an additional $44.1 million in non-recurring savings.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, said the division served the General Assembly with nonpartisan scrutiny of spending much like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) serves Congress.

“The Republican leadership killed off the equivalent of the GAO, a professional-based program that would save taxpayers millions of dollars,” Chaudhuri said. “I don’t know what other entity in the General Assembly will carry out a similar mission. It’s very sad to me.”

Berger’s office objected strongly to the claim that Government Ops does little oversight. Lauren Horsch, a Berger spokesperson, said the commission has met 11 times in the last 18 months and has looked into the “use and distribution of federal COVID funds, hurricane recovery, rental assistance programs, pandemic learning loss, and other topics.”

Yet, the commission has not produced the deeply researched reports on misspending and potential cost savings that characterized the PED’s work. Horsch said that work was too slow and poorly focused, while the new oversight arrangement allows legislative leaders to bring attention to issues immediately. “The General Assembly requires an oversight arm that is nimble and focuses on getting results, not producing reports,” she said. “That is why the PED was dissolved.”

John Turcotte, an expert in government oversight, headed the PED from its founding until his retirement just before the agency was eliminated. He’s still bewildered about why it was ended and the dearth of reviews issued since then. Turcotte, now living in Mississippi, told me: “For more than a year I tried to see what work they produced and, as far as I can tell, they haven’t produced anything.”

That may be the point. Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat and a member of Government Ops, said Republican leaders “do make mistakes, but they don’t want you to know about it.”

The PED was an excellent way to promote good and efficient government. Ending it did the opposite. If Republicans are really committed to being good stewards of the people’s money, they should create a nonpartisan and interdependently funded agency to scrutinize government spending.

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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