When conservatives balk at scrutinizing public spending

Published May 2, 2024

By Rob Schofield

For many years, it’s been a mantra on the political right that state government should be “run like a business” – a business that’s lean and efficient, and in which any hint of waste and self-dealing must be aggressively investigated and rooted out.

Several years back, a Raleigh conservative think tank railed repeatedly against the state’s K-12 school lunch program on the grounds some children were receiving free or reduced-price school meals even though their parents had – perish the thought – managed to bump their household incomes above the rather pathetic eligibility threshold.

When someone is willing to crusade against the idea of second-graders getting a price break on a slice of lukewarm pizza, a cup of applesauce and a small carton of milk, you know they’re serious about pinching every penny expended from the public purse.

In a similar vein over the last decade, Republican lawmakers and their allies stubbornly opposed Medicaid expansion – a largely federally financed move that would have provided health coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured people and prevented thousands of premature deaths annually — on the grounds that the state’s Medicaid program needed first to be “reformed” and made more “efficient.”

It’s funny, however, how this supposed hard-nosed commitment to efficiency tends to waver when questions arise about pet contracts and appropriations championed by conservative groups and Republican politicians.

Recently, for instance, conservative culture warriors at the North Carolina Values Coalition fired a broadside against Democratic state lawmakers for seeking information about private “crisis pregnancy centers” in North Carolina and what they are doing with the millions of dollars they receive in state funding. A release from the group said, rather amusingly, that the request from lawmakers amounted to “unethical authoritarian tactics.”

As critics have repeatedly explained, crisis pregnancy centers do precious little to aid pregnant women, save for doing their utmost to discourage them from seeking abortion care. Indeed, CNN reported in 2022 that many such centers have been found to provide false and misleading information to pregnant women in service of this agenda.

That state lawmakers might seek information from such groups in North Carolina – groups that receive significant state appropriations with essentially no strings attached – would seem to represent precisely the kind of careful fiscal stewardship that conservatives have long demanded for all public appropriations. Unfortunately, as the anti-abortion groups made clear, scrutiny is only welcomed by conservatives for some kinds of public spending.

Yolanda Hill Robinson with husband Lt. Governor Mark Robinson
Yolanda Hill Robinson with husband Lt. Governor Mark Robinson celebrating his primary victory on March 2, 2024. (Screengrab from Robinson’s campaign YouTube channel)


This kind of rather blatant double standard also came to mind last week when journalists discovered that a nonprofit run by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s wife is being examined by state officials for questionable actions related to a lucrative state contract it had.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Robinson’s wife, Yolanda Hill, ran a nonprofit called Balanced Nutrition for several years that received funding from the state to work with childcare centers in their receipt and use of public dollars to provide school meals.

Hill shut the business down recently and rather abruptly – saying to some people that she no longer had time to manage it while her husband ran for governor.

As Colin Campbell of WUNC reported, however, “Emails and documents obtained by WUNC through a public records request show the abrupt closure relates to an ongoing investigation by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the childcare center nutrition program.”

And as NC Newsline’s Ahmed Jallow reported yesterday, DHHS documents indicate that Balanced Nutrition was cited for discrepancies in figures it reported and for a failure to identify violations from some of the childcare centers it was responsible for monitoring.

Rather, however, than embracing the investigation like a true conservative and taking full responsibility for rooting out any discrepancies and inefficiencies in the nonprofit’s work, Robinson’s wife – who paid herself a hefty six-figure salary while running the group — is instead claiming that she’s being unfairly targeted for political purposes.

The WUNC report noted that Hill initially demanded a meeting with state officials to discuss the review of Balanced Nutrition’s work, but later rejected a proposed date for the meeting “saying she needed to arrange a date with the nonprofit’s attorney and would follow up later.”

Apparently, however, no such meeting has taken place since. WUNC reported that “Email records provided by DHHS don’t show any additional follow-up from Hill in the subsequent weeks…” and that Robinson’s campaign is now referring questions about the matter to the nonprofit’s attorney.

Of course, it should be noted that some on the political right have called out and criticized Hill’s program. Likewise, there have been plenty of times down through the years in which public appropriations favored by progressives deserved much more scrutiny. Remember the late Democratic U.S. Senator William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece Award” that skewered wasteful spending?

That said, the questions state officials are asking about the crisis pregnancy centers and the Robinson nonprofit are precisely what conservatives have long demanded in the review of all government contracts and appropriations. And it’s the height of hypocrisy for anti-abortion activists or the Robinsons to expect anything else for their businesses.

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.