Harry Brown of Jacksonville, the majority leader of the North Carolina Senate, says his bill to change how the state parcels sales tax revenues is all about addressing the differing economic health of the urban and rural parts of the state.
Republican Sen. Brown ironically is borrowing the “two Americas” phraseology, if the not the philosophy behind it, of former Sen. John Edwards. Brown says there are “two North Carolinas ... one that is booming and one that is busting.” He speaks on the one hand of North Carolina’s cities, which are indeed riding the economic recovery with more business and the prospects of more to come.
Raleigh residents see and hear evidence of that every day, from the building boom downtown to recreational facilities going up in areas north of the city’s core that were woods not long ago. The unemployment rate in cities is down and the comeback from the Great Recession that began in 2008 seems in full charge. So the senator is right about that.
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And yes, he’s right as well about the difficulties in rural North Carolina. Problems with job losses and an absence of new employers or prospects of any have, however, been around since before the Great Recession.
Manufacturing jobs have been going away for two decades or more. Go to the small towns of the foothills, where textile mills that once seemed to employ everyone in town, some families for two or three generations, have shut down. Go to the seemingly deserted areas of the northeastern part of the state, a region that long has struggled for employers. Go to the mountains, hindered in economic development by more sparse populations, with the exceptions of the city of Asheville and resort communities.
The problems of rural areas haven’t been recently discovered and are a surprise to no one. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, a nonprofit, was formed in 1987 to seek solutions to the problems of rural areas, to encourage economic development. It represented the interests of 85 counties defined as rural.
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The center helped to fund everything from clean water projects to building renovations to draw new business, anything that might assist a rural community with drawing jobs. It’s true some of the jobs were low-paying, but in smaller areas those jobs were valued.
A News & Observer series of stories in 2013, however, raised questions about the organization’s spending and its effectiveness, and a state audit was highly critical. Republicans quickly jumped on the problems as a reason to dismantle the center and merge its duties with the state Department of Commerce.
But rural North Carolina continues to lag behind.
However, is Sen. Brown on the right track to try to redistribute wealth by taking some sales tax revenue away from urban areas such as Wake County and sending it to more rural ones?
No, he is not. And his proposal seems all the more curious given that Republican lawmakers already have done away with “privilege taxes,” small levies on businesses that cities have used to pay for infrastructure items, money amounting to several million dollars a year in Raleigh, for example.
Helping rural North Carolina does not, and should not come at the expense of thriving urban areas that drive much of the state’s economic growth. Improving the economic circumstances of the state will be the result of boosting rural and urban areas, not pitting them against each other.
Imagination, not political gamesmanship, is what’s needed to develop jobs and futures for people of rural North Carolina.
And the state has to do its part, with constructive ideas and vision and not with constant political confrontation. This is a state where the “weak grow strong and the strong grow great.” That can and should be made a reality for all of North Carolina, rural and urban.