Opportunity for the next generation of Tar Heels. Safe neighborhoods. Economic security for families. Dignity for our retired parents and grandparents. It seems impossible to put a price tag on these basic goals that we all share for our families and our communities. And yet, each year that’s what our state policymakers must do as they craft a state budget that will determine things like the quality of instruction for millions of school children, access to decent, affordable health care for millions of our friends and neighbors, the tools and resources available to our public safety officers, and courts as they work to make our communities more secure and so much more.
The North Carolina House of Representatives put a price on these investments last month, when it proposed to allocate $22.2 billion towards these common purposes. Their proposal, not surprisingly, is what you might call “modest.” North Carolina’s uneven economic recovery is generating little in the way of new public revenue and the House also opted to allow another round of corporate income tax cuts to take effect that would deplete available resources.
But, meager as the House proposal is, it’s actually progress relative to the past several years in which a sluggish economy and misguided tax cuts targeted at the state’s wealthiest residents drained our public resources.
Because the House opted to invest most of the new revenue, they were able to take some decent strides in the right direction. They funded the basics such as supporting enrollment growth in public schools, the university system and health care services. And among other things, they reversed harmful policy changes enacted in 2014 to our child care subsidy program, provided a modest 2% pay raise for teachers and other state employees, and reinvested in the court system to bring it into the digital era.
Make no mistake: the House spending plan is extremely modest. It still falls short of pre-Great Recession levels of investments, fails to make up for years of harmful cuts and does not reflect all that’s needed to foster inclusive economic growth. That said, it does make some strides in the right direction and should serve as something for state leaders to build upon and strengthen rather than cast aside.
That brings us to where we are now. It’s now the Senate’s turn to put a price tag on things that make our communities and families more resilient. All indications are that Senators are feeling pressure from some loud and well-heeled interests to head in the opposite direction. Specifically, they are being prodded to squander the modest revenue gains our state is experiencing through yet another round of tax cuts rather than reinvesting them in the building blocks of community well-being.
Senators need to put families and communities first by investing more resources, not fewer, in essential programs like early childhood education and things that allow public schools to succeed like well-paid teachers, internet connectivity, and textbooks. They need to improve access to high quality child care for working parents, make college more affordable college, and aid the development of struggling rural economies. And they need to put resources towards helping our seniors remain independent and allow them to continue living at home—things like home-health care services and Meals on Wheels. These are but a few of kinds of steps our state should be taking. Is the price tag higher if we include these things? Sure, but it’s worth it.
The old adage that “you get what pay for” applies equally as well to the things we buy together like schools, roads and courts as it does to haircuts and hamburgers. We will get the opportunity, security, and dignity that we pay for. North Carolinians have long known that “doing things on the cheap” is no way to run a modern state. It’s time for us to remind our state senators of this basic Old North State principle. Now is the time to tell the Senate that North Carolina is worth it—our communities and our neighbors are worth investing in. The price tag we put on these things, as reflected in the state budget, should reflect the shared goals of the many, not the fears and cheapskate tendencies of the few.
Tazra Mitchell is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.