Let’s start with something everyone can agree on.
North Carolina has a massive surplus.
A new forecast of state tax revenue shows the state will have $6.5 billion more money than expected over the next two years. The Legislative Fiscal Research Division and the Office of State Management and Budget, which is part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, says that revenue collections have surged since its February 2021 forecast. Revenues should continue to accumulate thanks to a recovering economy and an economic boost from the federal American Rescue Plan.
Everyone also can agree on this: A surplus in the billions isn’t a bad thing, considering the alternative, but it’s far from an optimal thing. As any financial advisor or nosy relative will tell you, money that’s sitting around is money that’s being wasted.
North Carolina’s Republicans, however, see that waste as a collections issue. As Senate leader Phil Berger bluntly put it in a two-paragraph news release Tuesday: “A huge surplus does not mean we’re spending too little. It means we’re taxing too much.”
We appreciate the Senate leader’s commitment to his party’s fiscal principles, and there’s no question GOP policies have contributed to the state’s surplus. But those policies have come with a cost, one that is amplified by this week’s news.
North Carolina has a massive surplus, but it also has public schools that are underfunded and teachers who are underpaid. Regardless of the strides made on teacher pay under a Republican-led General Assembly, GOP lawmakers could have done more for public schools but have declined. Money isn’t the only path toward improving public education in both urban and rural districts, but our schools’ most critical employees have undersized paychecks, and our state ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending. That’s bad for children, for families, for communities. And it’s unnecessary.
North Carolina has a massive surplus, but it has a court system that doesn’t have enough money to properly confront crime and administer justice. North Carolina spent less per capita on its courts than any other state-funded system, according to data collected by the National Center for State Courts in 2012, and the state system is still getting starved. The result: Our courts are backlogged. Our prosecutors and public defenders don’t have the time to properly investigate cases, forcing them to cut deals that shouldn’t happen on everything from gun crimes to hundreds upon hundreds of speeding cases. That’s dangerous, and it’s unnecessary.
There’s more that doesn’t make sense. North Carolina has a massive surplus and for years has turned its back its citizens at the time they need it most — when they have lost a job and face some of the stingiest unemployment benefits in the country. We have a massive surplus and an underfunded mental health infrastructure. We have massive surplus and an opioid crisis. These are issues that affect all communities.
We also have opportunities to contribute to the economic health of our state by more meaningfully confronting issues like affordable housing in cities, broadband access in rural counties and health care discrepancies everywhere. Given the size of the state’s surplus, North Carolina can responsibly take advantage of all these opportunities without additionally burdening taxpayers. As Cooper said this week: “We have enough money to pass my entire budget plus all those tax breaks with more money still remaining.”
This is, in some ways, a moment of truth for Republican lawmakers. For years, they have framed budgeting as a zero-sum exercise — with the GOP as responsible stewards of state money and Democrats wanting to needlessly spend money the state can’t afford. Lawmakers and the rest of us can argue about whether those characterizations are accurate, but there should be little disagreement about this:
North Carolina’s needs are very real, and so is its surplus. We can afford, at this moment, to more aggressively address our challenges. Lawmakers in both parties should responsibly do so.