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Government streamlining may mean less effective government

RALEIGH — For Gov. Beverly Perdue, the hard part lies ahead.

Perdue has unveiled the outlines of a plan to reorganize and streamline state government.

The impetus for the plan is obvious. The state faces a $3 billion budget gap in the next fiscal year, and a new Republican legislative majority doesn’t seem too interested in extending a two-year tax hike to help close the gap.

Perdue, speaking to a group of business leaders from the Sandhills, made the point that, even without the state’s budget woes, the time had come to re-examine government priorities.

“I believe we have to be leaner and more responsible to citizens,” she said.

But as the governor is well aware, a leaner government is one with fewer jobs. The overwhelming bulk of state tax dollars goes to salaries, and one person’s government waste is another person’s job.

On this cold, blustery day, with the famous Pinehurst Resort golf courses outside mostly empty, Perdue offered up no details on which state jobs would go.

She did lay out how she planned to consolidate 14 state agencies under her control into eight. She said she would present a list of up to 150 state boards and commissions to the General Assembly to be considered for consolidation or elimination. And she announced a job freeze for all but critical state positions, like prison guards and parole officers.

On the jobs that could get axed, she offered hints, talking about “back office” functions like hiring and finance. She cited figures gathered by her office showing at least 377 human resources positions scattered throughout cabinet-level state agencies.

Perdue also spoke of opportunities to privatize and consolidate information technology and purchasing functions in state government.

The fleshing out of the plan will come when she presents her proposed budget to legislators in February or March.

What is clear is that the governor believes it makes no sense that managers involved in hiring or purchasing or bookkeeping for one part of a state agency couldn’t do the same for more parts of the agency.

She lays the groundwork for consolidating some of those operations by restructuring the state Department of Administration. Under her plan, that agency would become the Department of Administration and Management, with the Office of State Personnel, the state Controller’s Office and the Offices of Information Technology put under its control.

The work begun by the previous state controller, Robert Powell, and continued by current Controller David McCoy, to consolidate pay and human resources computer systems should help with the effort.

But there are also plenty of potholes ahead worth avoiding.

Too many times, other states that have tried IT and purchasing privatization have found promised savings to be illusory.

Centralization of some areas of government, while cheaper, may also mean that state residents will see less effective government, with fewer services and longer response times.

Some of those changes may be acceptable. Others may not seem so once people get a taste of them.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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