New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau have put North Carolina’s population over the 10 million mark for the first time. By the 2020 census, it’s likely if not certain that the nation’s ninth-most populous state will get its 14th seat in the U.S. House, giving it even more influence on the national stage.
That’s one of the benefits of population. The state’s two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, have been the chief sources of growth, with two-thirds of the growth in the state going to the Charlotte area and the Research Triangle. The reasons are no mystery: The urban areas provide more jobs through technology and research, with financial jobs related to banks and service areas, and of course with respected research universities that bring in jobs through research projects.
Gov. Pat McCrory says the state’s appealing qualities account for its growth, underscoring the state’s new tagline, “nothing compares to North Carolina.” In many ways, given the state economic growth coupled with the scenic vistas and vacation areas in the mountains and on the coast, and its draw for retirees, he’s right.
But if the state is to maintain not just growth but a quality of life, its government leaders must support investment in things like transportation.
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Consider, for example, the anti-urban biases that have shown up in the legislature, with those from less-populous areas wanting to cut into the investment and benefits that are going to growing cities. Limiting cities’ ability to tax businesses is one example.
Given the growth patterns, taking further revenue authority away from cities would be shortsighted and foolhardy for the overall welfare of the state. Lawmakers forget that this growth coming to cities benefits counties and towns within a 100-mile radius. “Bedroom communities” are sometimes farther away these days than they used to be. Some new jobs in west Charlotte, for example, might draw workers from Shelby, less than an hour to the west.
GOP legislators also have been unfriendly toward mass transit options such as rail. Again, that’s shortsighted. If we want growth to continue, one way to facilitate it, without building more roads that will be crowded instantly, is to invest in light rail and commuter rail. The state also ought to invest more in social services and infrastructure for cities, because such investments will benefit areas nearby.
The truth is, the state’s overall budget has been stagnant for years despite the end of the Great Recession and the need to provide for more students in public schools and the opportunity to expand services for all. Instead, Republican lawmakers have focused on tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations. It’s time to spend more, not to, in effect, spend less, which is what Republicans are doing even as they claim total spending has increased.
In essence, the growth is exciting – but will remain so only if the state gives local governments a measure of independence and if state lawmakers recognize they, too, have a responsibility to support urban growth.