With the agreement that will seal North Carolina’s budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 expected to be voted on this week, it’s not hard to imagine how things will go down.
The budget’s release always comes with a lot of strong words about what is funded and what isn’t – and this time in particular how leaders came together to compromise and make the tough choices. What is unlikely to be said is even more important: Those “tough” choices were false choices, self-imposed by the policymakers who severely limited their options and the state’s ability to deliver public services at the high level of quality and effectiveness needed to position the state to compete.
The choice that defines this budget deal and those in the foreseeable future was the decision to cut state income taxes and, in so doing, reduce the state’s commitment to building vibrant communities just as the national economic recovery came to North Carolina. Instead of what is being said, in reality, it is the ongoing pursuit of more income tax cuts over making sure all our communities are whole that frames the budget debate. It is this pursuit of additional income tax cuts that also shifts the costs to North Carolina taxpayers in the form of rising fees and greater reliance on the sales tax, which increases the tax load for middle- and low-income taxpayers.
There is growing bipartisan recognition that a cuts-only approach isn’t working, that in fact our shared investments are needed to support quality schools, transportation, safe communities and other building blocks of widely shared prosperity. Meanwhile, some legislative leaders have variously proposed reallocating sales tax revenue or securing state dollars for selected critical local infrastructure like water and sewers or important community assets like public libraries where such spending will shield their constituencies from the harm of state income tax cuts. The result is that the General Assembly’s pursuit of the public good is increasingly defined in the narrowest terms.
The most damaging truth in the final budget debate is that the state budget, a document that sets out our shared priorities for the next two years, is increasingly about protecting a few rather than serving many.
The unevenness in opportunity and mobility will continue to grow as a result. And the strength of our economy will erode. To ensure that our children can go to a school with up-to-date textbooks and in safe buildings, to pay teachers at a level where they can live and spend in their local community, to build the water and sewer infrastructure to serve all residents and support economic development – these basics have fallen away as the state has cut off its ability to secure needed (and available) revenue. Instead, state policymakers can’t serve the greater good or the general public so they default to serving their own districts.
Make no mistake. North Carolina can afford to give every community the opportunity for success. That is the best path for North Carolina to grow a stronger economy.
We should all look forward to the day when the annual process of putting together the state’s plan for spending would not be a stunted process because of lack of resources, but once again be a way to express and support a vision of a state that has an economy that works for everyone.
Alexandra Sirota is director of the NC Budget & Tax Center.