A budget is a moral document. Through it, we can measure a state’s values and its vision for the common good. In North Carolina, we toast ourselves as a place “where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.” But there is no greatness in our current budget proposals.
The draft budgets pushed by Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate Leader Phil Berger and their allies deepen the flood of extremist policies that they unleashed into law last summer. I am no lonely voice crying in the wilderness here. Only 18 percent of North Carolinians approve of the work our state legislators are carrying out this June.
This short session, the Forward Together Moral Movement called upon our legislators to repeal huge tax cuts for the wealthy that hurt the most vulnerable among us. Those harmed by these policies – the sick without Medicaid, working families without the Earned Income Tax Credit – spoke for themselves. But the extremists look away. They veil their immoral choices behind the rhetoric of economic necessity. There simply isn’t enough to go around, they say.
But the General Assembly created this year’s so-called budget crisis by passing hefty tax breaks for the wealthiest and the corporations last year. If our lawmakers found the courage to repeal the unfair tax policies, we would gain up to $1.2 billion in additional revenue.
The choices that extremist budget proposals put before us – to pay for teacher raises by firing teaching assistants or preying on poor people for lottery sales – are false. We need not rob Peter to pay Paul.
There is another way forward.
Berger tried to deflect a serious discussion by claiming it would cost the state $7 billion to implement the Forward Together Movement’s Moral Agenda. But when the nonpartisan N.C. Budget & Tax Center ran the numbers on a budget that repealed the tax cuts and aligned with the movement’s platform, it discovered that North Carolina would have an extra $100 million in its coffers in 2014.
With these revenues, we could give teachers an average raise of 5 percent with no strings attached. And extending Medicaid would further increase revenue by stimulating the economy.
Not only are such policies economically feasible, but more North Carolinians agree with the movement’s budget priorities than with the extreme proposals from Tillis or Berger. According to Public Policy Polling, more than half of the state’s residents are in favor of raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 to give our teachers a pay increase – a measure that the extremists say is off the table. Compare that with the 19 percent and 12 percent, respectively, who approve of the House and Senate budgets’ methods for raising teacher salaries.
Close to 60 percent of people support expanding Medicaid, which would provide 500,000 people with health care and pump $2 billion a year into our economy. Last summer, only 29 percent supported the extremists’ decision to cut federal unemployment benefits from 70,000 North Carolinians struggling to get back on their feet. Fewer than a third stood behind the fracking bill that will endanger our drinking water. Fewer than 10 percent want everyday people to pay for the coal ash clean-up on the Dan River.
A more fair-minded budget would give North Carolina more than a billion dollars of additional revenue to invest in the communities who need it most. That could include, among other priorities, restoring the EITC, broadening access to quality pre-kindergarten and higher education, lifting teacher salaries and boosting economic development and health access among the poor.
In this moment of reactionary politics, I am reminded of words from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the moral imperatives that anchor public policy: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Dr. King and other civil rights activists knew that systemic racial injustice did not end at a desegregated lunch counter but must be traced back to federal and state policies that consolidate inequities.
In North Carolina today, it is time to reconsider our budget priorities and open, not close, the doors of the People’s House, if this is to be a state where the weak can once again grow strong and the strong grow great.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina NAACP.