Two seemingly unrelated issues that will come before lawmakers this session both point out a major disconnect between the rhetoric of local control, letting cities and counties make decisions about their communities, and the reality of state lawmakers refusing to give them the authority to act.
Counties across the state are struggling to pay for infrastructure needs ranging from school construction to water and sewer improvements to local economic development needs. For the most part counties rely on the property tax and local sales tax revenue to pay the bills and county officials only have the authority to adjust the property tax.
Every session, counties come to the General Assembly individually, asking for permission to raise the hotel occupancy tax, and most of the requests are grudgingly approved. There is now momentum for legislation to let counties raise the local sales tax by half a cent to build schools. A similar plan failed late last session.
A legislative study committee is considering allowing counties more leeway, authorizing them to levy impact fees and a real estate transfer tax if the local voters approved the taxes in a referendum.
That raised the ire of two of the committee members, Rep Julia Howard, a realtor, and Rep. Bruce Goforth, a contractor. Howard said the two taxes could hurt local economies.
No evidence of that, but that’s not the point. The debate shouldn’t be about the taxes themselves, but about the authority of local governments to make their own decisions about what’s best for their own community.
Many local officials want the General Assembly to provide them with a menu of options to raise money that would include the transfer tax, impact fees and other revenue options. The study committee proposal would allow local governments to impose the taxes only after a vote of the people, still not good enough for Howard and Goforth and many other lawmakers who preach local control.
In this case, the taxes being considered are opposed by the homebuilders and realtors, two powerful special interests in Raleigh that employ a battalion of lobbyists and are significant donors to legislative campaigns. Local control meets donor control.
The same principle appears at work in allowing local officials to protect the health of the people they represent. There is significant momentum in Mecklenburg County to ban smoking in public places, but it doesn’t matter.
The General Assembly passed a law in 1993 at the request of the tobacco industry that prohibits local governments from passing any smoking regulations stricter than a weak statewide standard. That’s part of the reason the state received failing grades on the most recent report about tobacco control from the American Lung Association.
The people of North Carolina deserve enough schools, modern well-functioning infrastructure, and clean, smoke free air to breathe. If state lawmakers aren’t willing to adequately fund those initiatives themselves, they at least ought to give cities and counties the ability to do it. Enough with the empty rhetoric. Let’s start solving some problems.