North Carolina needs the Insko Rule for budget transparency

By Donald Bryson

Raleigh, NC – State Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, retired on March 31 and was the longest-serving Democrat in the state House at that time.

Verla Insko

Rep. Insko’s original plan was to retire at the end of 2022 and not seek re-election; however, she moved her retirement timeline up to March. In her initial retirement announcement in 2021, after a long tenure in the General Assembly’s lower chamber, Rep. Insko said, “It’s time.”

The News & Observer has described Insko as a “liberal veteran,” so I don’t often agree with her policy positions. We have disagreed on issues ranging from energy to healthcare. However, we agree on one crucial area related to the state budget – earmark transparency.

In February 2017, Rep. Insko filed House Bill 83, entitled “Ensure Budget Transparency.” The bill was straightforward. It would have amended the state budget process to include that “Every special provision contained in the Current Operations Appropriations Act shall indicate the name of the member or members who requested the provision.”

Rep. Insko also filed this same language as an amendment to the 2017 Rules for the state House, but it failed 48-68.

But what is a special provision? A special provision in the state budget can be boiled down to a more colloquial term – pork-barrel spending. Special provisions are additions to the state budget that are not core state government functions and are pet project spending for lawmakers on parks, high school athletic facilities, or funding for a local nonprofit.

For example, Paige Terryberry, senior fiscal policy analyst at the John Locke Foundation, found special provisions in the 2021 state budget such as “$1 million for a playground in Brunswick County, and $2.5 million to improve Rutherford County’s Forest City soccer complex.” And $6.1 million to purchase 194 acres in Chowan County for a new historic site.

Unlike Congress, the North Carolina General Assembly regularly passes a state budget through regular order – a vetting process that includes committees and subcommittees on various parts of the budget like capital spending, education, or public health. Regardless, budget committee chairs have broad powers over how the budget is written, and special provisions make it into the finalized state budget through various means, with little oversight. These budget earmarks can and have fostered an environment of political patronage through the state budget, and it has happened under Democratic and Republican leadership on Jones Street.

And so, we come to what I will call “the Insko Rule.” Rep. Insko’s idea from 2017 would mean a small change with huge impacts on budget transparency and accountability.

Budget earmarks can be for “good causes,” but state legislators are elected from local districts to make decisions on a statewide basis. It is irresponsible to use taxpayer money to fund localized projects that only benefit a select area at the expense of all North Carolina taxpayers without full transparency and vetting through the General Assembly.

The Insko Rule was voted down in 2017, with budget writers saying it would complicate the budget process. Candidly, that excuse is hogwash, which is highlighted by Florida’s passing a similar rule in 2016, under then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Leaders at the General Assembly have forgotten two crucial political maxims: sound policy makes good politics, and sound policy comes from good debate. Even on “special provisions, “increased transparency and debate on the state budget, even on “special provisions,” is sound fiscal policy.

In honor of Rep. Verla Insko’s 24-year tenure as a state lawmaker, and in the name of good government, it’s time for the General Assembly to pass the Insko Rule on budget earmarks.

Donald Bryson is president and chief strategy officer for the John Locke Foundation.