03/07/05 — Good bills: Proposals would help tighten state budget

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Good bills: Proposals would help tighten state budget

Soon we will be able to better judge just how seriously our state legislators take their duty to look after our tax money. It will depend on their reaction to two bills that were introduced in the General Assembly last week.

One of the bills, called the Taxpayer Protection Act, would allow a referendum on amending the State Constitution to limit the amount that the state can spend each year.

It was ballyhooed by a group of Republicans, including Sen. Fred Smith of Johnston County, who want to be seen as the guardians of the treasury. Democrats should jump on board to show that they can be just as fiscally responsible as the GOP.

If the amendment passed, the primary effect would be this: The Legislature could not adopt a budget whose increase was a higher percentage than the inflation rate, plus the percentage of population growth.

But there would be safety valves. The plan includes allowances for disaster relief and economic slowdowns, and spending could exceed the usual limit with a three-fifths vote of the legislators.

That sounds reasonable.

Colorado adopted a similar plan 15 years ago. Since then, according to the plan’s advocates, the state has returned more than $3 billion in surplus revenue to Colorado’s taxpayers.

In Raleigh, most Democrats have not yet embraced the plan. The budget proposed last month by Democratic Gov. Mike Easley calls for an array of new taxes and the continuation of some taxes that were supposed to have expired this year. Altogether, the budget totals $16.9 billion.

The other bellwether bill would require zero-based budgeting, meaning every state agency would have to justify all of its spending every five years. There would be a rotation, with the state budget director requiring at least of fifth of the agencies each year to itemize every program and its cost, with certain education initiatives exempted.

This kind of budgeting is not unusual in private business, where business owners are dealing with their own money. It should be just as vital to those who are spending tax money.

The sponsor, Sen. Robert Pittenger of Mecklenburg County, said the plan would identify wasteful and ineffective programs. It undoubtedly would help identify that minority of state workers whose jobs are unessential.

Both of these bills, if passed, would add discipline to the budget process, something every member of the Legislature should favor.

Published in Editorials on March 7, 2005 10:10 AM