When Republicans look like Democrats

By Scott Mooneyham | May 23, 2013


RALEIGH -- For a lot of years, Republican politicians have trumpeted the notion that some services traditionally delivered by government can be better provided by public-private partnerships.


The idea behind the public-private partnership is that services, still typically paid for with tax dollars, can be provided without creating more government bureaucracy, and that the private actors can operate more nimbly.


Sometimes the partnerships with government involve for-profit companies. Some cities, for example, contract with private firms to oversee parking meters. The companies collect or track the money paid into the meters, and their employees write the tickets and collect fines. Then they get a split of the money.


Other times, the partnerships involve nonprofits, either designated or created to deliver services outside the typical direct services model.


Several of those kinds of partnerships operate at the state level in North Carolina, among them the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and the N.C. Biotechnology Center.


Interestingly enough, Republicans in the North Carolina Senate seemed to have had their fill of them.


The $20.6 billion budget plan that they just approved would scuttle the Rural Center, putting its functions under a new Rural Economic Development Division within the Department of Commerce.


The budget plan also reflects suspicion of the Biotechnology Center, putting more state oversight onto its operations.


The changes don't end there.


State-funded trust funds that hand out grants might not meet the exact definition of a public-private partnerships. But these trust funds, like the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, have largely operated independently of state government, with appointed boards handing out grants.


The budget plan would streamline these groups or, in the case of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, put its functions under a new Division of Water Infrastructure.


Legislative Democrats aren't too happy about these moves.


These partnerships and entities were created on their watch. In the case of the Rural Center, it has been run since its inception by Billy Ray Hall, a Democrat who once worked in the administration of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.


The Senate's majority leader, Jacksonville Republican Harry Brown, says the changes are meant to make rural economic development more effective. "It is very obvious to me that what we are doing today isn't working," Brown said recently.


Perhaps. But a big driver of the shift appears to be worries that these organizations, while spending tax dollars, are not really responsible to taxpayers and their elected representatives.


It is not an inconsequential concern. A key criticism of these kinds of arrangements is that, after a while, there is little public scrutiny of how the organizations are spending money. They can become personal fiefdoms, or unseen hands can turn them into distributors of pork.


Of course, to establish direct lines of responsibility requires more government. Those new state agency divisions that GOP senators want to create would be what some folks refer to as bureaucracy.


By creating the state-funded nonprofits, Democrats looked sort of like Republicans.


In dismantling them, Republicans look sort of like Democrats.