Spending money to save money
RALEIGH - The irony was unmistakable.
In a recent legislative committee meeting, House and Senate lawmakers peppered an official in Gov. Pat McCrory's administration with questions about money the state is spending on an effort to try to save money in state government.
The effort is NC GEAR, short for Government Efficiency and Reform, which was first envisioned by McCrory as he entered office in 2013. The McCrory official was Joe Coletti, deputy director of the NC GEAR initiative. The questioners were Republicans and Democrats.
NC GEAR is funded with $4 million in the current two-year budget cycle. It is a poster child for one of the anchors of the McCrory administration – to make government more efficient and improve customer service.
Three-quarters of that money – roughly $3 million – is paying for private consultants hired to help probe into state government to identify ways to consolidate agencies or programs, save money and make government work better for the people. The rest is paying for costs of the program, including the salaries of a few state employees working on it.
Veteran legislators have seen this type of efficiency effort before, often with little more to show for the money spent than another report collecting dust on a shelf. Coletti himself acknowledged that similar efforts in the past have ended up as "great book stops."
That context framed lawmakers' questioning in the committee meeting. Rep. Julia Howard, a Mocksville Republican, led the barrage of questions to Coletti, focusing on the $4 million cost and what the state could expect in return.
Howard mentioned NC GEAR's interim report, which showed a list of efforts already under way across state government but no new recommendations. A final report is due in February. Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, asked Coletti whether he could share any cost-saving measures or "quick wins" that NC GEAR has identified at this point in its work. Coletti said he wasn't ready to do that. Another lawmaker questioned whether NC GEAR had enough time to produce valuable ideas.
Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, recognized the tone of the questioning and put it bluntly to Coletti.
"When we sit here in February, if we get a report back that doesn't have new directions that the legislature has not considered, new areas for potential consolidation and spending savings that is a bold direction for this state, then whatever we spend … will have been a complete waste of money and it'll find itself on another shelf," Hise said.
It's not the first McCrory idea to face close scrutiny from lawmakers. The governor's effort to move the job recruiting and marketing functions from the Commerce Department to a public-private partnership also has been met with intense examination over the past year-plus. It is now slated to move forward after gaining approval from the General Assembly.
Coletti said NC GEAR's final report would include specific recommendations and projected savings if they are implemented. He said the intent of the initiative is to "transform state government."
If he and his team don't produce, it was clear that NC GEAR will turn into RAGE among lawmakers.