More scrutiny needed in Raleigh

The newest revelations in the pay-to-play scandal now swirling around the McCrory Administration don’t make the governor look any better but they are a reminder of how concentrated power has become in the General Assembly and how absurd the state budget process remains.

Reporters with the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer broke the story more than a week ago of how Gov. McCrory convened a meeting last year between his political donor Graeme Keith Sr. and officials in his administration about Keith’s $3 million prison maintenance contract that was about to expire.

A memo prepared by officials in the Department of Public Safety says that McCrory turned the meeting over to Keith, who said that he had given money to politicians and it was time he received something in return.

McCrory claims he was engaged in a side conversation and didn’t hear the remarks and that if he had, he would have ended the meeting. But McCrory’s Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry and several other people in the room heard them and Perry says Keith repeated the reminders about his political contributions in another meeting and another phone conversation.

McCrory and his supporters have complained about the stories and blasted the media for reporting them, a predictable and absurd reaction since the stories are based on memos, text messages and on-the-record conversations with officials inside the McCrory’s administration, including Secretary Perry, a former FBI agent.

Legislative leaders are now promising to hold hearings about Keith’s prison maintenance contract, which was extended over Perry’s objections after McCrory’s budget Director Lee Roberts and Chief of Staff Thomas Stith got involved. The FBI is also investigating.

The News & Observer reported recently that Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he removed a provision in the state budget passed in September that would have banned private prison maintenance contracts unless they were specifically approved by the General Assembly.

Berger told the paper that no one in the McCrory Administration told him about the FBI investigation and that he had been called by Keith about the provision and had discussed it with Roberts and officials at the Department of Public Safety.

The provision banning the private prison contracts first appeared in the budget that passed the House, though House Speaker Tim Moore says he doesn’t know who inserted it into the appropriations bill.

It was not publicly debated.

The Senate budget included the same provision, which under legislative rules means it should have been included in the final budget agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators.

But Berger says after talking with Keith and prison officials, he and Moore removed the private prison provision from the final budget.

And just like that, a secret provision snuck into the budget without debate by an unknown legislator was removed by legislative leaders in secret too.

That’s the way the budget process works these days in Raleigh. There’s no need to have any public discussion about important issues. Just get a powerful legislator to sneak something in the budget and hope that a more powerful legislator doesn’t decide after a few private phone calls to take it out.

It’s telling that the revelations about the role of Berger and Moore in removing the prison provision prompted little outrage in Raleigh. It’s just accepted practice, the way things are now done in Raleigh. Never mind the pledges about transparency and open government.

The disturbing pay-to-play saga involving Gov. McCrory deserves legislative hearings, a federal investigation and more public explanation from the governor and the top officials in his administration.

The legislative budget process deserves some scrutiny too. One or two people shouldn’t be able to change state policy anytime they want to behind closed doors.

It’s a democracy after all, not a dictatorship.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.