Michael Walden, economist at N.C. State University, has been making economic forecasts focused on North Carolina for decades. He brings to the task a perspective based not just in academic experience but in practical knowledge.
So his upbeat view of what’s ahead in 2017 for the state is worth attention.
But it’s also worth some qualification — not of Walden’s predictions, which are sound, but based in the state’s political climate, namely the Great Divide between incoming Gov. Roy Cooper and a pugnacious legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans.
Walden says good times are ahead for Tar Heel cities. They’ve got lots of high-tech jobs, and the population includes people with advanced degrees who can fill those jobs. And, Walden predicts the state is going to gain 100,000 jobs in 2017. Good news, except that while a good number of those jobs will be higher-paying and going to those better-educated workers, many also will be at the low end of the scale.
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But he predicts that unemployment rates in the Triangle and in up-and-coming (some would say, already arrived) Asheville will go below 4 percent, which would represent the lowest rate since the dawn of the Great Recession in 2008. In fact, that rate would be lower than the rate before the recession. Because the state’s population will grow 30 percent faster than the national population in the coming year, jobs will boom. And as Walden notes, the state outperformed all sorts of national measures of the economy last year, including job growth, wages and gross domestic product.
All this is good news, of course, but there’s a political caveat. A couple, in fact. Will Republicans in the General Assembly continue to focus their economic plans, such as they are, on cutting taxes for the wealthy and for business, thus reducing the state’s revenues and making it difficult to invest in infrastructure and in programs to help average North Carolinian? Indications, unfortunately, are that they will do exactly that.
And what about the no-so-secret elephant in the room. That’s right. HB2, the ridiculous, vindictive action on the part of GOP lawmakers to curb anti-discrimination laws protecting those in the LGBT community, has cost North Carolina millions of dollars in travel and tourism money, in economic benefit for cities hosting, or now not hosting, events such as NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference championships, high-profit concerts and smaller-profile but lucrative things such as academic conferences.
As long as HB2 remains on the books, North Carolina’s campaign for new business will be conducted with a hefty anchor around the state’s neck.