The never-mind budget and why it hurts North Carolina

Suppose President Kennedy promised that America would put a man on the moon, but only if the price tag didn’t exceed some figure he predetermined with no idea of the actual cost. We probably wouldn’t have gotten there.

Suppose Theodore Roosevelt limited his vision for preserving great tracts of American wilderness as national parks to the same kind of capricious guesswork. Yosemite might be a shopping center.

Suppose Dwight Eisenhower decided the United States could fund an interstate highway system, but only as far as pre-existing budget reserves would allow. I-95 would still be in the planning stages.

In other words, you can’t aim high if you set arbitrarily low aspirations. And that’s what North Carolina legislators are on the verge of doing.

The state is about to adopt a budget for the coming year based not on what our state needs and what it will reasonably take to meet those needs but on a number lawmakers pretty much picked out of thin air.

Instead of considering how to help communities thrive, give all kids a top-flight education or invest in a strong future, they opted to let a formula take the place of reasoned deliberation. Judgment is giving way to rigid numbers. For no common-sense reason, they decided the state’s public investments over the next year couldn’t exceed the percentage growth in the state’s population plus inflation.

Why? That’s what happens when you so deplete public resources through a string of tax cuts that benefit mostly the wealthiest that you lack the revenue to meet actual needs. That’s what happens when you try to permanently cap the income tax at 5.5 percent to further limit resources.

Never mind that the number of North Carolina children and elderly will likely grow faster than the population as a whole.

Never mind that some important expenses – like health care – often grow by far more than the relatively low inflation rate these days.

Never mind that many dedicated public workers have gone a long time without real salary increases, leaving them to struggle to meet rising costs for the basics.

Never mind that some students in North Carolina are trying to learn from frayed, out-of-date text books.

Never mind that our courts are stretched and can no longer ensure all have access to representation or that the delivery of justice is efficient.

You could say North Carolina is about to adopt a “never mind” budget. And that’s a shame.

Too often missing from governing is a vision and candid conversation about what is needed to serve the economic and common good.

This budget approach doesn’t just fail to meet North Carolina’s needs. It means turning our backs on the accomplishments of the past and the reservoir of will that enabled them to happen. Our state established the nation’s first public university system. We built a model public-private partnership that brought great minds and big companies to North Carolina, making the state an envied hub for research and commerce. We created the best early childhood program in the country.

North Carolinians can do great things when we work together for the common good. Arbitrary limits on tax rates or spending levels didn’t build UNC-Chapel Hill and other campuses into the fine centers of learning they are today. Such unreasonable limits didn’t create the Research Triangle. And a limit to investment divorced from reality won’t help main streets across North Carolina come back to life. A flawed formula won’t make sure North Carolina attracts and keeps the best teachers. A capricious formula or cap on tax rates won’t help striving young people pay their college tuition.

Nor will these economically unsound limits make sure the state keeps the prized high credit rating that enables low-cost borrowing for roads, bridges, water treatment plants and other public infrastructure that serves people for decades. An unproven formula or limit won’t make sure the state has what it needs if a natural disaster or big economic downturn strikes.

A supporter of this “never mind” budget told reporters that, “We are utilizing every dollar of recurring money that is available to us.” What he left out was that first North Carolina made sure, through unrelenting tax cuts, that it wouldn’t have the revenue needed to invest in the foundations of prosperity. Then it decided how to spend what was left. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s not too late to get this budget – and this state – back on track. North Carolina legislators need to reject arbitrary limits and more tax cuts and do the jobs they were elected to do – determine the state’s real needs and how to meet them, for the good of all.

Rick Glazier is executive director of the N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh.