This election season voters will hear a lot about tax cuts passed by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed into law by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. But beyond all the celebration, the effects of the tax giveaway may be best told by the silence of empty Wake County classrooms where a custodian does not arrive.
Wake taxpayers are paying more to maintain the county’s high-quality schools, but that effort is not enough to offset reduced per-pupil support from the state. Scrambling to eliminate a $17.5 million budget shortfall, the school system is considering reducing custodial services by one day a week and keeping schools a little cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer to save on utility costs.
Some may think it’s an insignificant loss to have classrooms cleaned two days a week instead of three. And adjustments to the thermostat may go unnoticed. But the changes represent a subtle decline in the schools’ environment at a time when the economy is strong and local taxpayers are digging deeper to keep up the quality of Wake schools.
This is the distortion behind the boast about tax cuts. State lawmakers have reduced corporate and personal income taxes – mostly benefiting big corporations and the wealthy – by more than $3 billion a year. But the lost revenue has led to a steady erosion of public services and a shift in taxes from the state income tax to higher local taxes. The income tax cuts also required an extension of the sales tax to more services.
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Consider the effect on Wake County. Since 2008, just before the Great Recession, Wake County Public Schools’ student population has grown by 14 percent. State per-pupil funding over the same period has fallen 1.9 percent. Since the state provides 59 percent of Wake schools’ funding, that drop takes a significant toll on a school budget in excess of $1.4 billion.
“You can’t keep cutting funding year after year and think it’s not going to have an effect,” Tim Simmons, Wake schools chief spokesman, says of the state’s declining support.
Simmons notes that county per-pupil funding has gone up 6 percent over the same period. “It’s not that the county isn’t trying,” he says, “but it can’t make up for money lost at the state level while enrollment is growing.”
Yes, state income taxes are lower. But property taxes are up. And soon Wake classrooms may be a little less clean and a little less comfortable in winter and summer. Tax cuts come at a price.