Just two weeks into the legislative session, North Carolinians already are seeing how limited policymakers’ aspirations are for the future of communities and families.
First, the Governor proposed a state budget that fell far short of what North Carolina needs to have thriving communities and broad prosperity.
Then, yesterday, leaders of the House and Senate agreed on setting their sights even lower.
As if the limitations forced by tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy weren’t enough, legislative leaders went a step farther in the wrong direction by tying their spending targets to a flawed formula that replaces judgment with rigid numbers.
In deciding that what the state spends in a year can’t increase by more than the percentage growth in population and inflation, legislative leaders set a target at a little over $22 billion – less than the governor’s.
Such a formula is similar to one that has been severely reducing the quality of life in Colorado. A report from Colorado just this weekend found this inflexible policy is seriously diminishing educational opportunity. Students are trying to learn with outdated technology, and schools are having a hard time attracting or keeping the best teachers. The state’s ability to compete in the global economy can only suffer as a result.
That’s the sort of fate that North Carolina will face if the state makes plans wholly without basis in economic realities or the needs of our communities. Because legislators are using this flawed concept of population plus inflation, they will fail to build the foundation of an economy that works for everyone and that promotes future growth. The elderly population is growing faster than the state population as a whole, creating the need for services that people won’t get because the formula doesn’t take that into account. The same is true for school children, whose opportunities will be limited. And the formula will shortchange the public employees we rely on — teachers, highway patrol, park rangers and case managers. And as their wages erode, local businesses will feel the pain.
Spending is already at historic lows in terms of the size of the state economy, and the proposed target would keep it below pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation, despite all of these needs. The major metro areas may have been able to hold on for now, even as neighborhoods within those areas see increased hardship. In rural communities like Washington and Eden that are actively pursuing new economic development and needing support as their economy transitions, opportunities to thrive will fall away.
What it boils down to is that North Carolina’s legislative leaders want to turn the job of making public investments that should strengthen our state over to a formula. Indeed, they set their spending target before public comment was heard in any House appropriation committee about what communities and families are facing. Had legislative leaders taken the time to assess the facts on the ground, they would have had to contend with the crushing constraints generated from their commitment to cutting taxes and undermining public services already: Classrooms without enough textbooks for children and unable to keep up with the demands of digital learning. Teachers faced with wages that make it difficult to continue the profession without taking on second jobs to make ends meet. People in neighborhoods without grocery stores unable to find fresh, healthy food. The list of unmet needs and missing investments goes on.
No one knows just where this will lead. We can be assured, though, that North Carolinians deserve better than what they will get.