Now is no time for North Carolina to double town on “fiscal restraint”
As the health pandemic caused by the new coronavirus continues to take its dreadful toll on human life and wellbeing, the denizens of Right-Wing Avenue in North Carolina have begun to promote an inaccurate and downright dangerous talking point.
According to politicians and their apologists in conservative advocacy groups and think tanks, the policy agenda pursued by the Republican-led General Assembly over the past decade has left our state extremely well-positioned to respond to the crisis.
Because the current state budget and the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund featured modest-to-decent size surpluses at the outset of the crisis, goes the argument, legislative leaders have obviously demonstrated great prudence and foresight in recent years.
Indeed, things are looking so good right now in North Carolina, say these same parties, it’s clear that “fiscal restraint” should be among the top priorities for state leaders in responding to the pandemic.
In a memo it sent to state lawmakers this past Sunday, the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation went out of its way to urge the legislature not to provide too much aid to people in need. The second recommendation in the memo reads (I kid you not):
Do not match the amount of assistance available from the federal government; exercise fiscal restraint.”
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at such an absurd and callous argument. If it has its intended effect on legislative leaders, it’s probably the latter.
As the chaos surrounding this devastating and quickly spreading crisis in recent days has made patently clear, North Carolina was and is anything but well-positioned to respond. Yes, Gov. Cooper, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and the entire administration have performed superbly — even heroically — in their efforts to save lives while simultaneously overcoming the lead weight draped around their necks by the criminal incompetence of the Trump administration. But pluck and brains will only take you so far when the cupboard is so bare that the state’s university hospital system is reduced to begging for money and basic supplies just days into the crisis.
In fact, North Carolina is markedly and demonstrably less well-prepared than it should be in numerous areas precisely because of the shortsighted, tax-averse trickledown policies that have been implemented since the political Right assumed control of the General Assembly in 2011.
Sure, it’s great that the state has a modest budget surplus, but the idea that it will last more than a New York minute in the current unprecedented environment, or that it is somehow a function of sound policy choices, is preposterous.
The same is true for the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund surplus.
Neither of these “surpluses” are the byproduct of “fiscal restraint.” That would connote ideas like balance and a reasonable mixture of fair taxes and adequate services.
Both surpluses are, in fact, attributable to a decade’s worth of brutal cuts to core services and structures – a decade in which taxes on wealthy individuals and profitable corporations were all but eliminated.
As the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center reported recently, the General Assembly has slashed the state’s public health budget by 28% over the last decade – a time period in which the state’s population rose by 12%.
And the only reason there is any cash at all in the unemployment fund is not because of “restraint”; it’s because benefits and eligibility were hacked to the point that they almost don’t exist. Less than 9% of the state’s unemployed currently even draw the state’s pitifully low benefits. In 2013, when the bloodletting commenced, the number was closer to 50% even though employer taxes were still among the friendliest in the country.
And so it has gone with core service after core service – from schools to healthcare to criminal justice to basic environmental protection. What once were modest, middle-of-the-national-pack programs are now torn, threadbare and as fragile as COVID-19 patient praying for access to a ventilator.
What’s more, it’s a similar story for the state’s top heavy, trickledown economy. As Patrick McHugh explained yesterday afternoon in painful detail, the impending recession will prove especially devastating in North Carolina precisely because our state has failed to invest in the kinds of structures, services and supports that could have built a much more robust and resilient middle class – a phenomenon that has only been exacerbated by the winner-take-all, casino economy pushed by the Trump administration for the last three years.
As McHugh observed:
After a decade of job growth being concentrated in low-wage service jobs, over one-quarter of all private sector jobs in North Carolina are now in leisure, hospitality and retail. Sadly, these are precisely the workers who can least afford to lose income and often don’t have employer-provided health care, paid sick leave or other benefits that would soften the blow.”
The bottom line: Now is the time for anything but “fiscal restraint” – at least as it has been practiced in recent years. It is a time for massive public intervention to preserve the basic components of our state economy and prevent mass suffering. And it ought to be a time for those who have enjoyed a massive largesse in recent years – large corporations and the wealthy – to finally pay their fair share.