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The chief scores again 

While brokesters blow bucks

You go, Rodney Monroe.

Yes, that's how I started last week's column, but it bears repeating. The people of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have learned more in the past two weeks about what went down during controversial shootings by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers than they did in the previous several years. Now Monroe says he'll continue to release information from criminal investigation files about officer shooting cases of public interest.

That's huge. Under former Chief Darrel Stephens and those before him, the department wouldn't release all the details surrounding a shooting. If a reporter or resident asked tough questions, like, say, how long an officer zapped a suspect with a Taser before he died or how many times the officer zapped him, the police department would play a game I call the shifty file shuffle.

Department higher-ups would say they couldn't divulge the information -- and in particular the most potentially damning information -- because it was in the officer's personnel file and state law bars the release of information from personnel files and internal reviews. That's true, but state law doesn't bar the disclosure of information in investigative files after shootings by officers.

Ask the department for details on a shooting, particularly the potentially controversial ones, and in the past you'd always be told that the information was in the officer's personnel file and they couldn't release it, never mind that the same information had to be in the investigative file, too.

Of course, Monroe's plan to release some of the information from the shooting investigative files -- after the investigation is closed, of course -- isn't as good as releasing the whole file, but it's a start.

If Monroe really wanted to rebuild burnt bridges with the community, he'd release the files on the shootings of Alexander Ehrenburg, a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound man shot to death in his home after he refused medical help, and Wayne Furr, a cell tower worker shot and killed by police while working on a cell phone tower after a 911 caller mistook him for an intruder. It's absurd that these shootings happened three years ago, yet the men's baffled families still don't have the full details of what happened.

Brokesters Blow Bucks

State leaders did the "oh-so-broke" song and dance routine over the last few weeks as they wrestled with the state budget. Gov. Mike Easley argued that during these tough economic times, the state couldn't afford the tax cuts some in both political parties wanted to help people who are struggling financially.

Another bill the legislature passed will let illegal aliens convicted of crimes out of prison after they serve half their sentences to save money by conserving jail space. The idea is to deport them and hope they don't come back, a faulty proposition as readers of last week's column know. Though the legislature recently passed a plan to add more prison beds, it is still way behind on funding and building the prison space we need to keep up with the state's population growth, and legislators claim they can't afford to build more.

But state leaders do apparently have the money to incarcerate polar bears. While claiming with straight faces that they were broke, legislative leaders approved spending $2.7 million for an expansion and renovation of the N.C. Zoo's polar bear exhibit. That wasn't all. They also allocated $600,000 in planning funds for the African Pavilion at the zoo, which commits them to spending another $24 million in future years to finish the project.

According to the Civitas Institute, which tracks these things, a small sample of the other budget filler legislators weren't "too broke" to afford includes $900,000 for the Hunt Horse Complex in Raleigh, $2 million for an oyster sanctuary program, another $4.3 million for an oyster research hatchery, $500,000 to promote the CIAA basketball tournament in Charlotte, a $450,000 increase in funding for the North Carolina Symphony, and $500,000 for "green industries education and promotion."

State leaders know they can get away with the oh-so-broke routine because aside from a few think tanks, no one will seriously question their assertion that they are flat-broke, a claim reporters across the state dutifully parrot year after year without questioning it.

That's too bad. More than a dozen states over the last decade have saved billions of dollars by heavily auditing their budgets to look for waste or ineffective programs or going to zero-based budgeting, where legislators start from zero and assess what's in the budget and whether they need still it.

Here, most everything from the year before is usually added back in to the budget, sometimes with budget increases, then topped off in perpetuity with new spending.

Too broke? They don't even really know what's in the budget.

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