The 2015 year brought plenty of budget missteps on Jones Street—from another round of tax cuts to state investments that are mired at historic lows. Here’s a look at the top 10 missteps that state policymakers should address in 2016.
- State lawmakers once again chose to cut taxes that primarily benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations over meaningful levels of reinvestment. The tax plan will reduce revenue by $1 billion annually when fully implemented, cutting off pathways to greater economic success like early childhood development, public schools, and community economic development while also failing to boost the economy or create jobs.
- State lawmakers failed to restore the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefited nearly 1 million families and their 1.2 million children. Yet, they chose to expand the sales tax to new services like maintenance, repair, and installation, effectively further shifting the tax load onto middle- and low-income taxpayers.
- The 2015 tax changes make our tax system more upside-down by asking even more from people who are already struggling to pay the bills. Under full implementation of the tax package, the lowest income working families will end up paying a tax increase of $7, on average, whereas millionaires are the big winners again with a tax cut of more than $1,800 on average.
- This budget doesn’t address falling wages, just as the last two budgets failed to do. In 2013 an hour’s work in NC earned around $2.50 less than the national average; now that gap has grown to almost $3.00. Allowing the state’s lowest-income families to keep more of what they earn through an EITC is a key way to build a stronger economy, along with a higher minimum wage and collective bargaining rights, but legislators failed to restore the tax credit and raise the minimum wage.
- State investment is at historic lows. State lawmakers passed a budget that keeps state spending as part of the economy below the 45-year average. That would be fine if needs have shrunk but they’ve grown. State budgets typically allow spending to grow as the population grows and the economy changes, especially after an economic downturn when revenues plummet and services are frozen or cut.
- State investments break an unwelcome modern record as they remain diminished. Lawmakers passed a budget that caps off the only period since 1971 in which state spending declined as a part of the economy for seven and eight straight years while the economy itself grew. Continuing on a tax-cut path means there simply won’t be enough revenue left over to repair critical investments or to position our state to compete.
- Eight years later, state investment remains below pre-recession levels despite more children to educate, more older adults to care for, and more citizens to serve and protect. Such long-term disinvestments have translated into significant unmet needs for our state’s growing population—a shortage of K-12 textbooks, school nurses, and community services for older adults.
- This budget continues to hold us back from ensuring educational success for every child. For the current school year, lawmakers invested more per student compared to the 2015 fiscal year budget but well below 2008 pre-recession levels—nearly $500 less per student. This will cause real harm to the classroom and educational outcomes. The number of students in North Carolina schools has continued to increase since 2008, yet the amount of funding per student— and, therefore, the resources available to educate each student—has not been state lawmakers’ priority over tax cuts.
- For example, textbook spending is below half its 2010 peak level, leaving some schools with outdated textbooks or with no textbooks at all.
- Continuing down a tax-cut path is deepening cracks in NC’s opportunity structure—and it has left several vital areas of public programs and services inadequate.
- For example, lawmakers kept year-over-year spending flat for the pre-kindergarten program that serves at-risk 4-year olds. They failed to restore the more than 6,400 slots lost since 2009 or give opportunity to the 7,200 children stuck on the waiting list.
- For example, tuition at community colleges rose for the seventh consecutive year to $76 per credit hour from $72—an 81 percent increase since 2009—increasing the likelihood of a college education being out of the reach of many.
- This tax-cut path—and the revenue losses that come with it—also mean that some investments are completely missing from the budget.
- For example, there is no cost-of-living adjustment for retired public employees like former state troopers and teachers despite their shrinking purchasing power due to changes in the economy.
- For example, there is no Medicaid expansion, which means lawmakers denied affordable health care to about 500,000 North Carolinians.
- For example, there is no support to ensure that all rural communities have reliable high-speed internet access that is increasingly essential to participating in the global economy—which leaves struggling rural communities further behind urban areas.
At this critical point in the state’s uneven and slow economic recovery, policymakers chose to deliver greater benefits to the wealthiest few rather than build a solid foundation that supports opportunity for many.
This top 10 list is adapted from the NC Budget and Tax Center’s report on the FY2015-17 budget. See the full report here.