Agency PR expansion inexcusable

By Scott Mooneyham | Nov 11, 2013

RALEIGH -- A dozen years ago, 16 Senate Republicans signed onto a bill that would have made a remarkable change in North Carolina state government.

The 2001 bill had a simple title: "Abolish P.R."

It would have banned state agencies from employing what are known as legislative liaisons, people who lobby legislators on behalf of state agencies and keep their agency bosses informed about legislators' plans for their budgets and laws which they enforce.

Dozens of these folks walk the halls of the Legislative Building each day when the General Assembly is in session.

They include one or two employees from the governor's office, the executive branch agencies that are under his charge, and the agencies -- like the Department of Agriculture and Department of Insurance -- whose heads are elected independently of the governor.

The bill also would have banned employment by state government of anyone in public relations, those people who respond to reporters' telephone calls and emails, and who ply their email baskets with press releases touting the wonderful accomplishments of their bosses.

One of the bill sponsors, by the way, was a freshman senator named Phil Berger. That would the same Phil Berger who today is the top dog in the Senate, and like his Democratic predecessor, employs a couple of people whose job is getting out the Senate Republican point of view to the public.

The message meant to be sent by the bill was that the Democrats then in power were spending too much money on superfluous jobs not involved in the direct mission of the state agencies.

Those who hold those jobs would argue otherwise, and they should.

These are people who help prevent unintended consequences for the public, keep the public informed about critical information, and prevent their bosses from stepping into very public messes.

Now in power, some of those bill sponsors probably have a different perspective.

And, in 2001, they were doing what minority party legislators do: Try to embarrass your majority party colleagues.

Still, the bill is interesting to consider in light of a recent decision by officials in the Department of Health and Human Services to create a 24-member communications and marketing team.

The decision, referred to an internal agency memo, was recently disclosed in published reports in the Winston-Salem Journal and the liberal N.C. Policy Watch.

In response, the agency told the Winston-Salem newspaper that the changes "are simply a functional realignment of existing positions and do not represent any net new jobs at DHHS."

If that's the case, if existing jobs can be turned into better than a dozen jobs aimed at selling the public on the agency's wonderful plans, maybe there were too many jobs in the agency anyway.

Or, maybe the agency secretary, Aldona Wos, doesn't care about the missions carried out by those who filled the old jobs.

Whatever the case, it is inexcusable use of taxpayer money.

You might think that some folks who once took a dim view of all of these types of jobs would agree.