Empowering Oversight: Perspective on Oversight Commission’s New Powers

  • The North Carolina state budget, recently enacted, expanded the powers of the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, a body that has been in existence since 1975.
  • Expanding the Commission’s authority aligns with principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and transparency in government.
  • The use of extreme comparisons like “secret police” and “Gestapo” to describe the Commission’s work is unjustified. It detracts from the legitimate goals of fiscal responsibility and accountability, focusing on the responsible use of taxpayer funds. 

The recently enacted state budget, which became law without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature, expanded the powers of a legislative commission that has been around since 1975 – the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations. 

While there has been spirited debate, the decision to enhance the Commission’s authority is a positive step toward ensuring accountability, transparency, and efficient allocation of taxpayer funds. These new powers are crucial for good government and how they align with the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility.

The purpose of the Commission is spelled out in state law:

§ 120-71.  Purpose.

The rapid increase in the functions and costs of State government and the complexity of agency operations deeply concern the General Assembly. Members of the General Assembly have the ultimate responsibility for making public policy decisions and deciding on appropriations of public moneys. Knowledge of the public service needs being met, having evidence as to whether previous policy and appropriations have resulted in expected program benefits, and data on how State government reorganization has affected agency operations are most important.

Legislative examination and review of public policies, expenditures and reorganization implementation as an integral part of legislative duties and responsibilities should be strengthened. For the purpose of performing such continuing examination and evaluation of State agencies, [and] their actual effectiveness in programming and in carrying out procedures under reorganization, the General Assembly herein provides for the continuing review of operations of State government.

As the functions and costs of state government continue to evolve and grow in complexity, there’s a compelling argument for strengthening or making the Join Legislative Commission’s authority more explicit over time. By doing so, the Commission can keep pace with the evolving demands of modern governance and adapt to the changing landscape of public service needs and government reorganization. A stronger and more explicit mandate enables the Commission to fulfill its role more effectively in examining public policies, expenditures, and the impact of government reorganization, ultimately promoting the responsible use of public funds and the efficient delivery of public services.

Limited Government and Fiscal Responsibility

The principle of limited government suggests that the government should only intervene in areas necessary, allowing the private sector to flourish and individuals to make their own choices. The expanded authority of the Commission falls in line with this principle, as it facilitates oversight without creating new, expansive bureaucratic structures. Instead of creating new government agencies or regulations, North Carolina has empowered existing legislative bodies to ensure taxpayer funds are used efficiently.

The new powers enable the Commission to investigate misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance, mismanagement, waste, abuse, and illegal conduct. This proactive approach aligns with fiscal responsibility and limited government, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely rather than wasted or mismanaged. Such oversight can help prevent the need for more extensive government interventions to rectify financial crises or inefficiencies.

Transparency and Accountability

Transparency is a cornerstone of good government, and the expanded powers of the Commission promote openness in allocating public funds. The Commission ensures that the public can monitor government actions by allowing access to documents and records related to state contracts and subcontracts and entry to government-owned or leased buildings. This transparency is in the best interest of all citizens, as it guarantees that their hard-earned money is spent responsibly and ethically.

Furthermore, accountability is a crucial aspect of a functioning democracy. State legislators have the moral and legal responsibility to oversee the use of taxpayer funds when they pass legislation to fund governmental entities and nonprofits. Granting the Commission the authority to investigate the use of these funds enhances accountability and ensures that those who misuse taxpayer money are held responsible for their actions.

An example of where these concepts matter is in hurricane recovery. Over 3,000 hurricane victims who have endured the devastating consequences of events like Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018) are still without homes. They deserve and need the highest degree of government transparency and accountability, especially on the allocation and management of state and federal funding for recovery efforts. As they wait for years to return home, every dollar of that funding must be spent efficiently and effectively. The Commission’s role in overseeing government operations, expenditures, and program effectiveness becomes crucial. It ensures that the process of hurricane recovery and rebuilding is transparent and that the government remains accountable for meeting its obligations to these victims. Providing transparency and accountability through the Commission helps assuage concerns and frustrations and reassure victims – and other taxpayers – that their recovery needs are prioritized and their tax dollars are spent wisely.

Efficiency and Incentives

Empowering the Commission creates incentives for government agencies and nonstate entities receiving public funds to operate efficiently. When these organizations know their actions and expenditures are subject to rigorous scrutiny, they are incentivized to improve their practices. This oversight, in turn, can lead to a more efficient and cost-effective government.

The Commission’s role is not to stifle innovation or effectiveness but to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used wisely, benefiting the state. It creates an environment in which nonprofits and governmental agencies are incentivized to operate efficiently and transparently, ultimately helping the taxpayers who fund these endeavors.

Politically-Motivated Criticism

The new oversight powers granted to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations have not been without its detractors. Still, those opponents seem only to want to attack it with language not based on any sense of reasonableness.

Speaking on the Commission’s new authority, Rep. Alison Dahle (D-Wake) said, “This secret police force can even come into, for example, a law firm that receives state funding for court-appointed lawyers. This now means that the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege is now defunct,” she said.

Sen. Graig Meyer (D-Orange) said the legislative Republican majority is trying to create a “new government Gestapo” that directly answers to GOP leadership at the state legislature, which they could use to take revenge against political rivals.

Let’s be clear – drawing comparisons between a state legislative commission comprised of democratically elected officials and terms like “secret police” and “Gestapo” is not only inappropriate but also a tired and unjustified attempt to invoke extreme imagery that has no basis in reality. Such rhetoric detracts from constructive discourse and undermines the importance of oversight and accountability in government operations. 

It is crucial to recognize that the Commission’s mission is to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent efficiently and responsibly, not infringing upon individual rights or engaging in political retribution. The primary focus should be on the responsible use of public resources, as entities receiving taxpayer funds are expected to be transparent and accountable to the taxpayers who have earned the money. Maintaining a rational and civil dialogue around these issues is essential, rather than resorting to hyperbolic comparisons that do a disservice to the seriousness of fiscal responsibility and transparency in government.

The expansion of powers granted to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations in North Carolina represents a step in the right direction for good government. It upholds the principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility, transparency, and accountability. By empowering the Commission, North Carolina ensures that taxpayer funds are allocated efficiently, government actions are scrutinized for integrity, and incentives for responsible spending are established. In doing so, the state moves toward a more accountable, transparent, and fiscally responsible government, aligning with the core principles of free market conservatism.