Today in North Carolina

GOP likely making mistake

May 4, 2013 

— One interesting aspect of Republican rule in the state capital is this: As the GOP has rejected significant portions of public policy drawn by Democrats predecessors, Republican lawmakers have embraced a demonstrated failure of Democratic policy.

That policy is agency budget flexibility.

On paper and in political speeches, the notion that the government workers who spend tax dollars know best how to use them sounds good. Actually, it sounds more than good. To an extent, it is likely accurate.

In practice though, the middle managers in state government who have the best ideas about making the best use of tax dollars typically do not have sufficient power to drive decision making.

They carry out the wishes of their upper-level bosses. Those bosses, given flexibility to decide how to spend money without private-sector pressures like bankruptcy or competition hanging over their heads, inevitably are influenced by something else – human nature.

Human nature often causes those administrators to use their budget flexibility to reward people like themselves with jobs and raises. The result is bloated upper-level management that waddles around looking for something to do while middle managers and rank-and-file employees get loaded down with more job responsibilities as lawmakers use spending flexibility to justify budget cutting.

This scenario is not speculative. It has already happened.

When Democrats controlled the state legislature, they continually gave the University of North Carolina system and its 16 campuses more say in how they could spend the tax money doled out to them.

The result, as Dan Kane of The News & Observer reported in 2009, was that administrative jobs grew 28 percent during a five-year period, double the rate of student-enrollment growth. Then-UNC system president Erskine Bowles responded by ordering the elimination of hundreds of administrative jobs.

Still, the figures stand as a stark lesson in what happens when state legislators put fewer restraints on how state entities can spend their tax dollars.

Lawmakers might be about to embark down the same path with public schools.

Legislation moving through the state Senate would eliminate school class-size caps.

Those caps currently fund local school systems at a student-teacher ratio of 17:1 in grades one through three and higher for other grades, with actual classroom averages for the lower grades set at no more than 21 students.

Proponents argue that it will give local school administrators the flexibility to use their allotted tax dollars, which are provided on a per-pupil basis, to address needs as they see fit.

With schools judged increasingly on student performance, those administrators will be driven to adjust class sizes and move resources in the ways that will best improve the schools, the logic goes.

Maybe.

Or maybe future budget pressures cause lawmakers to shrink funding based on higher student-teacher ratios, performance measures are watered down, and administrative jobs nonetheless grow.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.

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