Over the next year North Carolinians will find out the results of an experiment that began July 1. On that date, a new state budget took effect that is based, not on the level of public investment needed to help communities thrive, but on a formula divorced from the reality of everyday lives.
The formula is rigid, if nothing else. It says public spending growth can’t exceed the percentage growth in population and inflation. Period.
Even if serving more kids in pre-K than the formula dictates could make more children ready for kindergarten and more likely to be proficient readers by third grade? Yes.
Even if more seniors could stay in their homes with more home meals and services? Yes, the formula knows best.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, welcome to government “of the formula, by the formula and for the formula.”
Is this as good as it gets for a state that, through public investment over the years, built a powerhouse economy, world-class university system and vibrant communities, big and small? It just might be, if we agree to let a formula take precedence over the judgment of lawmakers and the public.
A lot of people seem to be shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Well, let’s move on.” But we should not give in to this defeatism. The way things are now should not be “as good as it gets” for North Carolina. We are capable of far better for our families and communities. We can make the public investments needed to build a prosperous economy for everyone. We can deliver on the promise of excellence in the classroom and on building pathways to the middle class.
When we rely on a simplistic formula, however, we sidestep answering vital questions about how to make public investments for the good of all. We saw this in recent months when, even while making some useful investments — digital learning tools for the classroom, pay raises and bonuses for some teachers and public workers, help for North Carolinians struggling with mental illness and Alzheimer’s – the budget choices lawmakers made were greatly constrained. The formula asks simplistic “either/or” questions when the right questions — “what will it take for North Carolina to regain its past promise?” and “how do we find those resources?” – are far more complex.
The real answers to our challenges involve mustering the public will to raise the revenue needed, rather than continuing down a path of tax breaks that benefit the wealthy and special interests the most. The same shortsighted thinking that has brought us the supposedly all-knowing formula also brought the regressive tax changes of recent years. Both moves constrain choices, and in the process, shift more of the responsibility for taxes away from millionaires and onto many North Carolinians who work hard yet struggle to get by because of low pay.
Year after year, the failure to address the backlog of unmet needs and missed public investment opportunities has diminished the lives of working people and their families.
Take for example, a legal assistant in the state courts system who hasn’t received a meaningful raise to keep up with the rising costs of the basics or increased college tuition for his or her kids. Or the mom whose job as a home health care worker pays too little for her to send her son and daughter to a safe, high-quality child care center. And then there is the town that can’t fulfill its vision for a more vibrant Main Street because state support is harder to come by and the city that must raise property taxes in order to take over greater responsibility for supporting education of every child.
Let’s not accept this as the new normal. Let’s not cramp our aspirations. Instead let’s get back to the spirit of the common good that made North Carolina such a beacon of hope and opportunity.
North Carolinians know that the path to a better future is built through shared commitment to top-quality schools, safe air and water, and thriving communities. North Carolina deserves these things. We achieved them in the past by working together toward a vision of greatness and can do it again. And there is no simplistic formula for that.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.