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Mark Binker at WRAL.com has a story this afternoon that offers a classic example of what happens when the policies enacted (and driven) by tax cut zealots cause public structures to be dismantled:

— North Carolina lacks the ability to track and combat the spread of mosquitoes as the Zika virus that has been blamed for brain-damaged babies in Brazil makes its way into the United States, according to the state’s chief epidemiologist.

“Our biggest limitation is that mosquito surveillance and control is very limited in this state,” Megan Davies, epidemiology section chief in the North Carolina Division of Public Health told the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee on Thursday. “There used to be funding for localities to do mosquito control that is no longer available.”

Two different programs aimed at controlling mosquitoes and other pests were pared back, and then finally eliminated, under Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, as both governors and the General Assembly struggled to get a hold on budget shortfalls that were symptoms of the recession.

In 2010, Perdue and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly made the first cut to grants that helped local governments control mosquitoes. In 2011, a Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to eliminate the “vector control program,” which monitored and analyzed the spread of mosquitoes as part of what is now the Department of Environmental Quality. The last of the mosquito control grants for local governments were eliminated in 2014.”

And while the story notes that Bev Perdue presided over the beginning of the program cuts, it should be noted that she did this in an environment in which conservatives were fighting her tooth and nail over every effort she made to find new revenues to pay for important programs. And clearly, it was the current conservative leaders who finished the program off.

The bottom line: The cuts to the mosquito program are emblematic of the disinvestment in all sorts of essential — often life-saving — public structures that conservatives have pushed on North Carolina in recent years. Think about that fact this summer when you’re lathering up with extra bug spray and ask yourself what would make you feel a greater sense of “freedom”: a few bucks in income tax cuts or the knowledge that public servants were working hard to protect you and your loved ones from a dangerous disease?

Commentary
Prof. Zeynap Tufecki, Image: UNC

Prof. Zeynap Tufecki, Image: UNC

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the fine op-ed that ran in the Sunday New York Times by UNC Assistant Professor of Library Science Zeynap Tufecki. “Why the Post Office Makes America Great” is a powerful reminder of why investment in common good, public institutions is essential for the maintenance and growth of a healthy society.

In it, Tufecki, a Turkish immigrant, explains how amazed she was when she first came to the United States and discovered the easy accessibility of institutions like the U.S. Mail and public libraries. Indeed, she had to work hard to convince her friends back in Turkey that she wasn’t lying when she told them that postal workers would pick up mail free of charge six days a week from private mailboxes throughout the country.

She concludes the essay this way:

“Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the link between infrastructure, innovation — and even ruthless competition. Much of our modern economy thrives here because you can order things online and expect them to be delivered. There are major private delivery services, too, but the United States Postal Service is often better equipped to make it to certain destinations. In fact, Internet sellers, and even private carriers, often use the U.S.P.S. as their delivery mechanism to addresses outside densely populated cities.

Almost every aspect of the most innovative parts of the United States, from cutting-edge medical research to its technology scene, thrives on publicly funded infrastructure. The post office is struggling these days, in some ways because of how much people rely on the web to do much of what they used to turn to the post office for. But the Internet is a testament to infrastructure, too: It exists partly because the National Science Foundation funded much of the research that makes it possible. Even some of the Internet’s biggest companies, like Google, got a start from N.S.F.-funded research.

Infrastructure is often the least-appreciated part of what makes a country strong, and what makes innovation take flight. From my spot in line at the post office, I see a country that does both well; not a country that emphasizes one at the expense of the other.”

Would that our passionate friends in the anti-government Right would read Prof. Zufecki’s commonsense observations and take them to heart.

Commentary

Among numerous other dramatic and heretofore unpublicized changes, the Senate unveiled another version of its plan to shift sales tax revenues away from urban counties toward poorer rural counties this morning. And while parties can legitimately debate the wisdom of various sales tax apportionment methods, the underlying premise of the legislation — that adequate tax revenues are essential for communities to fund education and other public structures that are central to economic health and development — runs directly counter to everything else the conservative legislative majority preaches.

On virtually every other day, government is the enemy and the beast that needs to be starved. Somehow, however, when it comes to sales tax revenue, all of a sudden government is essential for community health.If you doubt this, listen to Senator Harry Brown preach about the inability of counties like his (Onslow) to offer teacher salary supplements and build new schools.

Earth to Senator Brown: There are lots of ways to get after the problem of inadequately funded public structures and services…like, for instance, not wrecking the state income tax.

The bottom line: It would be nice if these guys would get their story straight.  While their rhetoric this morning on the importance of public investments is welcome, the hypocrisy it evidences with respect to just about everything else they do and say is stunning.

Commentary

TaxesCatherine Rampell of the Washington Post has an excellent essay in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer about how the American aversion to taxes has become an irrational and destructive affliction. Not only are we leaving core public structures and services chronically underfunded, we’re skewing our entire political system by turning our public servants into scavengers who must concoct ever-more-elaborate schemes to pay for the services we demand.

“Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. Officers around the country now attend workshops that offer tips on the best goodies to nab (go for flat-screen TVs, not jewelry).

Forcing cops to remit forfeiture proceeds to the state or local treasury, rather than allowing an eat-what-you-kill policy, might discourage bad behavior to some degree. But at heart, the reason such actions are so commonplace is that government revenue has to come from somewhere, if it ain’t coming from taxes.”

As Rampell goes on to point out, this ridiculous state of affairs is transforming how we fund government from a broadly-shared, democratic enterprise  into a regressive, market-distorting mess. She might’ve also mentioned that it’s helping to transform how we think about government as well. Where once all citizens were stakeholders/owners, we’re now becoming cheapskate bargain hunters looking only to get the best deals for ourselves (e.g. private school vouchers).

Her solution: “It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.”

Amen to that.

Uncategorized

Road crewsThere was a great cartoon in the New Yorker magazine a couple of years back in which a man whose house is on fire stands next to it with a bucket in his hand, waving away arriving firefighters and saying “No thanks–I’m a libertarian.” As North Carolina endures another major winter storm today and tomorrow, it’ll be interesting to see how many conservative, anti-government Tea Partiers have such a thing to say about the public services and structures that will save lives, bind our society together and expedite recovery.

The guess here is the number will be very small. When it comes to natural disasters, even the far right seems to forget its hate of government and all things public — if only temporarily. For some reason, all of the “government = slavery” talk and rants about monstrous commie plots seems to go by the wayside when roads need to be plowed and basic safety and utilities need to be delivered or made possible. Who wants to listen to Limbaugh when there’s a big snowstorm blowing?

While it would be tempting, however, to attack and deride anti-government folks for their hypocrisy at such a moment, we would all do better over the coming days to simply welcome them back into the communal fold. So hang in there, stay warm and keep an eye on your neighbors — whatever their political beliefs. Maybe just maybe, the experience of coming together during a crisis will even remind a few  of our conservative fellow citizens that society fares much better when it hangs together on warm and sunny days too.