Defending a battered NC agency

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 20, 2013

RALEIGH — No one in state government jumps for joy at a 15- or 20-percent cut in their budget.
But when that happens, especially to a small agency with a limited mission, legislators might be sending a message.
The message apparently hasn’t sunk in yet for former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner.
Gardner now heads the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, which oversees state permits for the sale of alcohol. Speaking to legislators recently, he called for more money to go to the state Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement.

The ALE, which operates under the oversight of the state Department of Public Safety, helps enforce the state’s alcohol laws. It has 102 sworn law enforcement officers and roughly 80 field agents.
“We’ve been underfunded for a number of years,” Gardner told a legislative oversight committee recently.
If so, it became a lot more underfunded this past year. Legislators decided to cut ALE’s budget by $1.7 million, to $9.85 million. WRAL-TV in Raleigh recently reported that the ABC Commission provided the agency with $500,000, apparently from receipts, and the state lottery commission chipped in another $200,000 to soften the blow.
The moves allowed the ALE to avoid eliminating 12 jobs. It is unclear, though, whether the ABC and lottery commissions can keep filling the gap.
At the same meeting in which Gardner spoke, ALE director Gregory Baker said losing that $700,000 would have a “catastrophic effect for our ability to execute our mission.”
Whether he meant to or not, Baker’s comment gets the heart of the matter. A lot of legislators aren’t so sure of the mission. When the cuts were first being discussed, some state lawmakers publicly questioned whether the agency spends too much time on investigations not directly related to enforcing the state’s alcohol laws.

For a number of years, some legislators have privately questioned the need for this separate state police force when local police and sheriffs departments can enforce the same laws. This summer, Baker responded to the questions by pointing to ALE’s assistance to those local law enforcement agencies, particularly in rural counties.
The agency, though, has not invited a lot of public goodwill in recent years. One director resigned just days after published reports about missing assault weapons and the purchase of new handguns. A year later, the agency had to replace the same handguns because of their unreliability.
Baker’s predecessor, John Ledford, came under scrutiny for driving his state car back and forth between Raleigh and his Asheville home. He then attempted to block State Auditor Beth Wood from issuing a report criticizing his driving habits, maneuvering with all the finesse of Attila the Hun at a cocktail party.
Those problems occurred on the watch of previous Democratic administrations.
That doesn’t mean Baker and Gardner aren’t having to defend an agency with a tattered reputation.
They might want to attend to that defense for a while before looking for more state tax dollars.
Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.