Paul T. O’Connor: Debates mislead public about rainy day fund

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 25, 2016

RALEIGH — Sometimes I wonder if televised debates don’t do more harm than good, confusing the public when candidates make arguments woven from issues taken out of context.

After the Hurricane Matthew floods, North Carolinians were clearly susceptible to rumors that government help would not come. In both October gubernatorial debates, the candidates made arguments that only stoked that fear.

Attorney General Roy Cooper implied that the state’s resources had been diminished because Gov. Pat McCrory spent money from the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund to defend HB 2 in court.

McCrory responded that Cooper, had he been governor, would not have accumulated the Rainy Day Fund, thus undermining disaster relief.

Good news, North Carolina. Neither is right. The state has plenty of resources for disaster relief.

First, Cooper’s claim: Yes, the legislature said the governor could use a half million dollars from the fund to defend the state in the HB 2 lawsuits. But McCrory says he did not avail himself of that option. The money is still there and still available for disaster relief.

If Cooper has a gripe about the designation of such funds for HB 2 defense, he should take it up with the legislature because legislators put that clause in the budget. But that wouldn’t be a good gripe to pursue, either. Let me explain.

In the early 2000s, after several devastating storms hit the state, the Democratic-led General Assembly created the disaster relief fund with a one-time appropriation. In 2015, the Republican-led assembly reloaded that same fund with $10 million, raising its current balance to $12 million, minus outstanding obligations.

So, if Cooper wants to gripe about the $500,000 designated but unspent funds, he should also acknowledge that the Republicans just reinforced the fund with $10 million.

But let’s imagine that the whole $10 million did get spent, the next move would be to use the governor’s broad executive powers to move budgeted money from other programs to disaster relief.

So, Cooper’s insinuation that McCrory, the legislature or HB 2 shortchanged storm relief is not supportable.

Just as empty, however, was McCrory’s insinuation that Cooper’s call for a smaller Rainy Day Fund would have harmed storm relief.

“Rainy Day Fund” is the nickname for the Savings Reserve Account, $1.6 billion of non-appropriated funds that the governor can’t spend. The fund has nothing to do with rain, snow,or disaster relief. Instead, it’s the state’s savings reserve for the next recession and/or revenue shortfall.

Only the legislature can touch this money and it would have to appropriate it through the normal budgeting process.

Don’t look for the legislature to withdraw anything from the reserve, however, for disaster relief. The current legislative leadership is much more likely to pay for disaster relief in the General Fund budget using current state revenues.

Even after the horrific flooding, North Carolina is financially sound and fully capable of funding disaster relief. Don’t let the candidates scare you.

Paul T. O’Connor has written about North Carolina state government and politics for 35 years, He teaches at the School of Media and Journalism at UNC.