The current debate in Raleigh over how to address the billions of dollars in school construction needs is part of a much larger discussion about how to maintain and build the physical infrastructure that makes modern life possible. A new report documents how declining public investments have left America’s roads, bridges, water pipes, sewers, airports, railroads, and schools in bad shape.
See our recent report Make Space for Learning on how years of tax cuts and broken promises created the school facility crisis and for analysis of the competing plans currently in the legislature.
Even as the nation’s engineers sound the alarm, governments across the country are investing less in infrastructure as a share of the economy than at any point since the 1950s, and North Carolina is no exception. Our collective investment in shared infrastructure has fallen markedly, a major reason that our schools, roads, and other systems are in such dire need of an upgrade.
As is often the case during economic downturns, the NC General Assembly diverted funds from infrastructure to address the budget crisis created by the Great Recession, delaying repairs and putting off new projects. What came next, however, was less common. Instead of getting back to work when the economy improved, legislators passed several rounds of tax cuts and kept kicking the infrastructure can down the road.
The choice to pursue tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy is why we are behind on paying for infrastructure that benefits us all. It is why North Carolina passed the $2 billion Connect NC bond to pay for university, community college, and state park facilities in 2016, it is why the legislature authorized the $3 billion Build NC bond Act to update North Carolina’s roads last year, and it is why we are contemplating issuing bonds this year to pay for school, water, and sewer facilities. Tax cuts have costs, and those costs manifest over time in crumbling roads, failing bridges, and decaying classrooms.
Public investments can knit the country together, ensure that our drinking water is free from poison, that our children have inspiring places to learn, and create public spaces and parks that feed the soul. As we can see in the current school construction debate, when we turn away from building a better future, we all suffer.