House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate budget writer Harry Brown included a combined $19 million for their home districts in this year’s budget.
The spending will benefit a nonprofit baseball organization in Moore’s Cleveland County district, a planned museum in Brown’s hometown of Jacksonville as well as water system, airport and school construction projects.
This type of spending has been common in North Carolina budgets for years – referred to as earmarks or “pork barrel.” When Democrats were in the majority, Republicans often criticized Senate leader Marc Basnight for funding projects around his Dare County district.
Moore and Brown weren’t the only legislators who successfully secured funding for special projects at home this year. But the two leaders appear to have garnered more money and more projects for their districts than any other lawmakers, a News & Observer review of the 400-page budget bill found.
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Many of the projects are clearly needed: The Jones County schools in Brown’s district have been in poor condition for years, and Moore’s hometown of Kings Mountain is among many rural communities with aging water lines.
Plenty of other communities, however, have similar needs and won’t be getting help from the state budget. The earmarks highlight Moore and Brown’s clout in the legislature, and the benefits that communities can reap when their lawmaker rises in the leadership ranks.
“Our education system should not be funded based on which member is a member of the majority party and leadership,” said Rep. Nathan Baskerville, a Henderson Democrat who says schools in his rural district along the Virginia border need help too.
“Why couldn’t they go through regular procedures? Let all of the rural infrastructure needs be placed on the table ... it shouldn’t be done last-minute in a back room.”
But Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and the House’s top budget writer, says his party has reduced earmarks overall since taking control of the legislature in 2011.
“In the old days, they used to allocate a particular amount of money for each legislator,” some of whom directed state funding to high school band uniforms, Dollar said. “Clearly, those days are over.”
While some earmarks have continued, legislative leaders are “doing the best we can with the process as it is,” he said.
Earmarks are difficult to track and quantify and even decipher in the budget language. Lawmakers’ names are not attached to the specific spending, and sometimes the location isn’t directly named. Some legislators argue their appropriations aren’t earmarks because they say people outside their district will benefit too.
The Raleigh-based Civitas Institute has for years criticized earmarks and other projects it considers “wasteful spending.” Earmarks seem to be on the rise as state revenue grows after the recession, said Brian Balfour, the group’s director of policy.
“It’s been creeping up,” he said. “We’re definitely noticing a gradual increase.”
Earmarks from both the original House and Senate budgets made the final spending compromise, despite major cuts to education and other programs as the overall spending level was lowered by $415 million from the House proposal.
Moore and Brown have defended earmarks for their districts, arguing that the projects are worthy of state funding. Moore issued a news release after the budget passed – sent only to news outlets in his district – touting the local funding under the headline “Budget Invests In Cleveland County.”
“Regardless of my leadership post, I am always a representative for the people of Cleveland County, and I am proud to say this state budget collaborates with local entities to improve our community,” Moore said in the release. “With increased state support ... I hope to see our home county continue on a path to prosperity for all.”
Statewide news outlets got a budget release with a different headline. It said the spending plan “strengthens public education, cuts taxes, funds core government functions.”
Moore declined an interview request for this story. “I’m not sure what is new on this topic,” spokeswoman Mollie Young said, referring to an earlier News & Observer story about Moore’s earmarks in the original House budget. “The speaker will not be commenting on this again.”
Brown, who represents Onslow and Jones counties near the coast, said the budget funds museums and other amenities in the state capital every year.
“I could argue that Wake County gets more than its fair share in every single budget,” he said. “It’s fair that some of these smaller counties get a small piece of it. These projects are worthy, or I certainly wouldn’t have funded them.”
School district gets millions
Brown included $2 million to build an air traffic control tower at the Jacksonville airport. He says it’s the third-biggest airport in the country without a tower. Pilots use standardized procedures and radio signals to safely land there.
That project is small compared with the $10.96 million Brown inserted for a new middle and high school in Jones County, which is one of the state’s poorest.
School construction is typically funded at the county level, with county commissioners issuing bonds to pay for new schools and renovations. Revenue from the state lottery also goes to construction, but those allocations have been capped in recent years.
Jones County doesn’t have enough property tax revenue to replace aging schools on its own, Brown said. “There are a lot of counties that are in positions that they can’t build schools at this point,” he said.
Jones County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Sondra Riggs says the budget allocation will make a huge difference for students there. In addition to needing major repairs, the current school buildings often flood.
“We’ve got to get these kids out of these flood zones,” Riggs said. “It ain’t a lot to everybody, but it’s a lot of money to us. ... We’ve got this great opportunity. God sent it.”
Brown frequently pointed to Jones County’s school challenges as he lobbied for a shift in sales tax dollars this session. The compromise version of the sales tax change will direct an additional $500,000 each year to Jones; an earlier Brown proposal would have sent an additional $1.2 million a year to Jones by 2020.
Brown also argues that the state’s allocation of lottery revenue for school construction leaves rural counties at a disadvantage. About $100 million in lottery funds is distributed each year, and it is based on school enrollment numbers. That meant Wake County received about $10.6 million last year, while Jones County received about $75,000.
“Your bigger counties are getting a lot of that money,” Brown said, adding that he wants to make changes in future state budgets to help more rural school districts. “Sooner or later, this issue will get bigger and bigger.”
Until recently, school districts received more lottery money for construction needs. A 2013 Senate budget provision scrapped a requirement that 40 percent of lottery money go toward school construction. Budget writers said the percentage formula had been ignored for years as money was diverted to other needs.
Instead, lottery construction money is now capped at $100 million, to be shared by all districts. Brown was among the top budget writers that year.
Under the old, percentage-based formula, the state’s schools would have shared in $234 million last year for construction.
The N.C. Association of County Commissioners has been lobbying legislators to restore the 40 percent requirement. The group’s lobbyist, Johanna Reese, said that change would help all rural counties.
“Some of the smaller counties just can’t raise property taxes enough to build a school,” she said. “Many of them have older, dilapidated schools, and they need the money for renovation and repairs.”
Legislators have budgeted funding for nonprofit museums in their districts for years. This year’s biggest museum allocation – outside of state-owned attractions – goes to the Museum of the Marine in Brown’s hometown of Jacksonville.
The museum will receive a $500,000 grant and hopes to welcome its first visitors sometime next year. For now, it’s run by a volunteer director who’s storing donated Marine Corps artifacts in several warehouses. Jacksonville’s city government has donated a downtown building to house the exhibits.
The state funding is a big boost for a nonprofit that has raised about $5 million in private donations and received about $130,000 from Onslow County tourism funds.
“We really need to get me out of being executive director,” said Dave Brown, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who hopes to fill his job with a paid staffer. “We need to have an interim place to let the world know that we do have a museum on the way.”
The Museum of the Marine wasn’t in either the original House or Senate budget. Instead, Harry Brown added the funding in the final weeks of budget talks between the two chambers.
Dave Brown said museum backers had talked with the senator but didn’t know whether they’d receive funding until the budget compromise was released. Dave Brown is not related to the senator.
“All we knew was if there was a possibility that Sen. Brown would help us, he would do it at the very end,” Dave Brown said.
Harry Brown said the state funding should help the museum open its first phase. “It’s a tourist attraction for the county,” he said. “I just think it’s important to the history of our state.”
Several other small nonprofit museums are funded in the budget, but they only received $25,000 each.
A decade ago, Republican legislators blasted museum funding – particularly an allocation for a teapot museum planned for the small mountain town of Sparta. A Democratic House member from the area added the museum to the state budget; Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Virginia Foxx directed $500,000 to the museum in the federal budget.
“How do we justify $400,000 for a teapot museum?” state Sen. Phil Berger said in 2005, long before he became the chamber’s leader. “How do you think that plays out there?”
Starting next year, legislators plan to switch to a competitive grant model for “grass-roots museums.”
For fiscal year 2016-2017, the budget allocates $2.45 million to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for grants to small science and children’s museums.
“For all of those who have been trying to get your museum in and didn’t have any connection on the budget team, you’ll have a chance now to send those through a grant program,” Rep. Pat McElraft told fellow House members during the budget debate.
Not all earmarks are clearly spelled out in the budget bill. Some don’t mention the name of the local government that will benefit, instead listing very specific criteria for a grant that only one applicant is likely to meet.
A $5 million allocation in this year’s budget for a water infrastructure grant has detailed requirements: It must go to a town of less than 12,000 people that received a state loan in 2013 “to replace water distribution lines.”
Only one town appears to fit the bill: Moore’s hometown of Kings Mountain. The speaker recently tweeted about the budget provision but didn’t mention where the money will likely go.
“#ncbudget allocates $5M for Water/Wastewater Infrastructure Grants to #NC small towns for essential repairs, renovations,” he tweeted.
The original House budget included $10 million for the water grant program, with $5 million aimed at Kings Mountain and another $5 million available to any county categorized as among the state’s poorest.
The $5 million for poor counties was cut from the final budget compromise.
Moore’s news release to Cleveland County media explains the allocation, saying that repairs and renovations to water lines are “essential.”
“This long-standing problem has cost the municipality, homeowners and businesses countless dollars over the years,” he said in the release.
Kings Mountain City Manager Marilyn Sellers did not return phone calls seeking information about the project.
Also unclear: A $200,000 grant Moore put in the budget for American Legion World Series Baseball Inc., which hosts an annual baseball tournament in Shelby. Budget documents don’t specify how the money will be used, but Moore’s news release said it will fund “much-needed improvements” at Keeter Stadium, where the tournament is held. The stadium was built in 1976 and received a $2.8 million renovation in 2013.
Eddie Holbrook, who leads the group, did not return phone calls.
Both Civitas and another conservative advocacy group, Americans For Prosperity, said budget earmarks need to be more transparent and shouldn’t have nebulous language that directs money to a specific community without naming it.
When people pay their taxes, they’re paying for the core functions of government. Is a baseball stadium a core function of government.
Donald Bryson, state director, Americans for Prosperity
The groups are lobbying for a law requiring legislators to attach their names to their earmarks in the budget bill.
“It’s easier to get (earmarks) out during budget negotiations” because legislators know who’s pushing a pet project over other spending priorities, AFP state director Donald Bryson said. “Those conversations get awkward very quickly.”
Bryson said earmarks can be difficult to defend publicly. “When people pay their taxes, they’re paying for the core functions of government,” he said. “Is a baseball stadium a core function of government?”
With education funding and tax policy taking center stage in this year’s budget debate, earmarks garnered little mention. Only one legislator criticized them on the House floor: Rep. Darren Jackson, a Knightdale Democrat.
“We’re turning Raleigh into D.C. with every budget we do,” Jackson said, referring to earmarks common in Congress. “If you’ve got a project and it’s a good project that affects only your district, put it in an appropriations bill. Don’t insert it in the budget and ask us to have an up-or-down vote on the entire thing.”
House Speaker Tim Moore and Sen. Harry Brown weren’t the only lawmakers sending money home. A glance at others:
$100,000 for the Duplin County Events Center in Senate budget writer Brent Jackson’s district
$25,000 for the Rankin Museum of American Heritage in Ellerbe in Republican Sen. Tom McInnis’ district
$25,000 for the Brevard Station Museum in Stanley, hometown of House Transportation Appropriations Chairman John Torbett
$8 million in additional funding for the Mountain Area Health Education Center to train doctors serving rural areas, an allocation added by Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville
House Speaker Tim Moore: $5 million for a water infrastructure grant to Kings Mountain; $200,000 for renovations to a baseball stadium in Shelby; and nearly $100,000 each to Shelby and Kings Mountain for downtown revitalization projects
Senate budget writer Harry Brown: $10.96 million to build a new middle and high school in Jones County; $2 million for an air traffic control tower at Jacksonville’s airport; $500,000 for the Museum of the Marine in Jacksonville
A glance at projects that didn’t survive the state’s budget process this year.
$3.9 million to offer bonuses for teachers whose students perform well on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests
$1 million for a “charter school accelerator” program to help launch new schools in rural counties
$100,000 for the N.C. Science Olympiad, a nonprofit that operates science, technology and engineering competitions for K-12 students
$2.75 million for the One N.C. Small Business Fund, which provides technology development grants to startup businesses. The program will get $2.25 million, but not the full $5 million sought by the House.