North Carolina’s legislative leaders return to Raleigh next week with the opportunity to make a down payment on the obligation they have to North Carolinians, an obligation to smooth the pathway so we can all move forward over the next decade.
Despite a national economic expansion in the 2010’s, in North Carolina, most of the benefits from that economic growth flowed to the very rich.
It was a decade in which tax cuts and tax caps for big companies and the already wealthy were prioritized over children and families.
It was a decade of austerity budgets that undercut public schools, public health, and public infrastructure across the state, weakening the foundations of community wellbeing.
It is time for a decade of better policymaking that can undo at least some of the damage of the last one. The starting place for legislative leaders shouldn’t be limited to the interests of donors or their own experiences, but should center on what is possible with a focus on the wellbeing of all North Carolinians and attention to the priorities of the people of this state.
Fortunately, legislative leaders have the resources today to demonstrate their commitment to serving the people. Roughly $800 million in revenue that was not contemplated in the prior year’s budget is available for state leaders to allocate immediately to community priorities that advance the common good, even without a final budget.
To begin this month, legislative leaders can commit to putting the priorities of North Carolinians for good, quality jobs, access to health care, and a sound basic education, as well as affordable child care and housing first.
Here are five steps for the first month of 2020 that will start our state on the path to a better decade.
- Raise the minimum wage: On Jan. 1, 22 states across the country raised their state minimum wage in recognition that the federal standard of $7.25 per hour falls far short of what it takes to make ends meet. Unfortunately, North Carolina leaders have kept the state in line with that woefully inadequate wage, effectively blocking the possibility for work to move large numbers of people out of poverty.
- Build a high–quality early childhood system in every community: Despite overwhelming bipartisan support and corporate interest, the state’s investment in early childhood falls woefully short of addressing the need for affordable care and accessible providers in every community, as well as the promise that investing early in the education and wellbeing of children is good for them and our state.
- Close the coverage gap and provide affordable care: More than 500,000 North Carolinians stand to benefit when North Carolina legislative leaders make affordable health care possible through Medicaid expansion. Not only will doing so benefit the health and wellbeing of people, but it also will stabilize many communities and create broader benefits to the state. At the same time, the state must provide quality, affordable care to those North Carolinians already enrolled in Medicaid who will experience the transition to managed care.
- Make access to decent and affordable housing a top priority: Under the increasing pressures of rising rents and housing costs, declining stock in communities, and eroding stewardship of public housing, the state is facing a challenge in housing that is felt in both urban and rural places. A commitment to build more affordable housing and support housing access for more people is critical to stabilizing communities and advancing well-being.
- Commit to North Carolina’s constitutional responsibility to deliver a sound basic education: In the wake of a court-ordered report released at the end of 2019 finding significant harm to children from underinvestment in K-12 education, North Carolina leaders can make a first payment toward ensuring a high quality education for each and every child in the state.
More will be needed in the months and years ahead if we are to truly be a state that values the lives and wellbeing of our residents and seeks to advance our collective success. Immediate action this month on these five items would, however, signal to North Carolinians that our legislative leaders are willing to listen to their priorities and their values of what a successful state looks like.
It would be a mistake for legislative leaders to instead double-down on the flawed approach of the past decade — an approach that has consolidated wealth and prosperity for the few, in a few places. An override of the Governor’s budget veto to enact the legislative priorities of 2019 this January would throw our state back further. Instead, we must strive together to get ahead.
When legislative leaders make policy choices today that are for the people, we will be able to look back at the end of this next decade to find progress towards greater financial security for every person in our state, a higher quality of life for all, and stewardship of our resources for generations to come.
Alexandra Sirota is the director of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center