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Guest column – Problems, priorities out of sync

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By Ted Vaden

Jim Goodmon is not happy about the state of the state.

“I am steamed,” says the CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc. “I just can’t understand it.”

What’s got the CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Company so upset is, as he sees it, a huge disconnect between the problems of North Carolina and the priorities – or lack thereof – of North Carolina’s elected leaders in deploying state resources and setting government policy.

His concerns are particularly relevant in the wake of the November elections, which essentially left our state government in gridlock.

Goodmon – president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal — is on the board of a little-known organization called the North Carolina Progress Board. The board, comprising leaders from throughout the state, was set up by state lawmakers to advise the state on the needs of our citizens and directions for meeting those needs. It operates under the umbrella of the University of North Carolina system.

The board’s done a pretty good job of pointing out the state’s challenges in the areas of health care, education, jobs, economic development, the environment, civic participation and government effectiveness. If you think, as many of us like to, that North Carolina is a progressive New South state leading the South in providing prosperity and quality of life for its citizens, the most recent Progress Board report will disabuse you of that notion. Consider:

Among all states in the U.S., North Carolina has the:

* Second-highest rate of juvenile diabetes.

* Second-highest rate of teenage obesity.

* Among the highest levels of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. (Wake County is one of two counties in the U.S. targeted for syphilis reduction.)

* Second-highest high-school dropout rate.

In addition, more than a third of North Carolina residents earn less than a basic standard of living, and the gap between the richest and poorest of our citizens is increasing.

North Carolinians smoke more than their counterparts in rest of the U.S., including 20 percent of those ages 12 to 17.

“This picture just tells me that we’re going to become a third-rate Southern state unless the legislature learns to do something about these issues,” Goodmon says.

The biggest problem is jobs. North Carolina, because of its large manufacturing base and historic dependence on waning industries such as textiles and tobacco, has been hit particularly hard by the recession. A recent study of laid-off North Carolina workers showed that, two years after losing their jobs, those who had found work were earning 68 percent of what they had made in their former jobs.

Tom Covington, executive director of the Progress Board, says the state has not responded effectively to needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. The state has $800 million in state and federal money that can be used for workforce development, he says, but the money is spread over 49 programs in eight state agencies.

Politics and bureauracy, coupled with the current funding crisis, impede effective state responsiveness, he says.

“In all of these things, what the Progress Board would like would be for the state government to be very nimble and very responsive,” Covington says. “But the shortage of funds and rules and regulations make it hard to move the state.”

Goodmon is more blunt. He blames the problems on a state legislature seized up in games of political one-upsmanship.

This year’s budget was produced four months after the fiscal year started and was patched together with one-time money that put off the tough decision-making until next year.

Rather than raise cigarette taxes – in a state with the nation’s second-lowest tobacco tax and a high rate of smoking – the budget was balanced in part by cutting $930 million in programs such as mental health, public health and social services.

“It’s a dysfunctional legislature,” Goodmon says. “It’s not capable of dealing with these problems. If you had a company and the board of directors didn’t give you a budget until four months into the year, you’d be out of business.”

Goodmon and others leaders are campaigning to get the Progress Board’s report and recommendations into the public eye, with the hope that citizen concern will force the legislature to pay attention.

Good luck. The task of effective lawmaking is going to be made more difficult by the outcome of this month’s elections, by most reckonings. The elections left the legislature even more divided than in the last session – a 60-60 Democrat-Republican split in the House, and perhaps a 26-24 Democrat-Republican balance in the Senate (some races still hadn’t been settled as of this writing.)

The situation is not helped, by the way, by a governor who chooses to use the first veto in North Carolina history to spike an obscure bill on legislative appointments to state boards and commissions. Gov. Mike Easley’s veto was an act seemingly calculated to antagonize lawmakers.

What’s needed now to bring North Carolina out of its morass is leadership and a solid agenda for change. We’re still looking for the leadership, but the Progress Board report is a good start on the agenda. You can check it out at www.ncpb.state.nc.us/.

Ted Vaden is editor and publisher of The Chapel Hill News, which originally published this column.

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