Rob Christensen

GOP confronts rural-urban divide

Now it’s the Republicans’ turn to take a crack at one of the state’s most vexing long-term problems – the two North Carolinas.

But unlike the Democrats, the GOP conservatives come to the large economic gap between the urban and rural parts of the state with strong reservations about government intervention and a strong belief in market forces.

The problem is that market forces – the decline of agriculture and the collapse of such traditional industries as textiles and furniture – are leading contributors to the decline of rural and small town North Carolina.

The divide is real and seems to be growing.

While the Triangle and the Mecklenburg areas continue to be among the fastest growing areas in the nation, much of rural and small town North Carolina has been left behind – a panorama of padlocked plant gates, empty Main Street storefronts and working people drawing shrinking paychecks.

Even as the economy improves, with unemployment down to 5.5 percent, there are still 20 rural counties with unemployment of 7 percent or more.

The truth is there has long been a deep divide between the urban and rural areas. During the first half of the 20th century, most white people living in North Carolina’s major towns and cities had all the modern conveniences, while those living in the rural areas lived on dirt roads, without electricity and telephones.

The divide led to a pitchfork revolt by rural voters – the so-called Branch Head Boys – in 1948 that resulted in the election of Democrat Kerr Scott as governor. He pushed through a $200 million road bond issue for secondary roads to help get the farmers out of the mud, and badgered the utility companies to extend more electric and telephone lines to the countryside.

In recent decades, rural North Carolina has been hammered by a double whammy of declining agriculture and globalization.

A succession of governors who grew up in small towns or rural areas have tried to do something about it.

Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Erskine Bowles to chair a Rural Prosperity Task Force in 1999. Among other things, the task force pushed for the extension of more Internet service to the counties.

Democratic Gov. Mike Easley created the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit that used mainly tobacco settlement money, to help give a lift to the rural areas.

The North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center was created in 1987 after a task force led by Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan outlined the growing disparities in the rural parts of the state.

The Republicans have been skeptical about some of these programs, particularly the Rural Center, questioning whether it was still effective or whether it was susceptible to political cronyism. This newspaper, in its reporting, raised similar questions.

Most of rural North Carolina is now represented by Republicans.

Senate leader Phil Berger is from Eden in Rockingham County. House Speaker Tim Moore is from Kings Mountain in Cleveland County.

For Democrats, it was an easy ideological leap to start new programs designed to help rural North Carolina. It is more difficult for conservative, libertarian-oriented Republicans, which is why they are proposing redistributing existing funds.

The Senate Republicans are floating a plan that would change how the sales tax is divvied up – taking from the richer counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg and sending it to the poorer counties such as those in rural Eastern North Carolina.

This is the kind of Robin Hood policy you’d expect the Democrats to dream up – a touch of agrarian socialism.

Juan Carlos Suarez Serrato, an economics professor at Duke University, who has studied the effect of government spending, said the legislative plan would tend to decrease income inequality in North Carolina. That is because it shifts tax money from wealthier counties to poorer counties, where tax money would have a larger impact on both public services and providing jobs, Suarez Serrato said.

The danger, of course, is cuts in sales tax to urban areas will result in property tax increases to offset the losses in those areas. And that could make the state’s economic engines less attractive to corporations who are choosing between Raleigh and Austin, not Raleigh and Eden.

But at least we are getting a debate about an important issue. The small towns and rural areas are still the heartbeat of North Carolina.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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