In recent years, I've learned not to expect much from the editorial pages of North Carolina newspapers, so it's always a pleasant surprise when one nails a tough topic to the wall. That's what happened today at the Fayetteville Observer. I've rarely seen such honest sentiments written so clearly.
Many taxpayers are comfortable with the fiction that their elected officials enjoy nothing quite so much as raising taxes, and do it at every opportunity. For most, it’s more like root canal.
County boards of commissioners usually will pull every trick in the book to hold the property tax rate down for one more year — especially in an election year. In this election year, however, conventional wisdom has gone out the window as school construction needs have soared and lottery revenues have sagged. As the end of the fiscal year approached, almost a third of North Carolina’s 100 boards had signaled a readiness to jack up rates.
Cumberland County offered a 3.5-cent increase to cover school construction costs, but was stopped by a Local Government Commission edict against basing too much new debt on anticipated lottery revenue. To its credit, the county was at least poised to do the right thing had it not been forced to resort to financing that is likely to meet too little of the need, too late.
Scotland County, already burdened with one of the highest rates in the state, rolled the dice, betting on a proposed multistate mega-landfill to meet its growing need for revenue and jobs.
Hoke County, fresh off a revaluation that raised property values an average of 25 percent this year, actually lowered its rate 4 cents. Even so, fees for solid waste disposal, inspections and subdivisions will rise. That, too, is understandable because Hoke, for all its explosive growth, remains poor, with its ancillary benefits exported to other counties and Fort Bragg, making the property tax almost its only significant revenue stream.
Leaders in these counties, all of which have rates far above the state average, aren’t resorting to contortions and laying their political lives on the line for their own amusement. They’re doing it because state government capped, rather than eliminated, local governments’ share of Medicaid costs, ignored the gasoline tax and refused to slap a proper tax on tobacco products — and because North Carolinians continue, as they have for generations, to talk a better game of education than they’re willing to play.
If you're wondering who to thank for this miserable state of affairs, you can start with the John Locke Foundation Puppetshow, which is hell-bent on destroying effective governance at the state level in favor of a shell game varnished with free-market delusion. From there you can step up to the national Republican Party and the Bush Sadministration, whose passion for giving tax breaks to the rich appears to know no bounds.
It’s not a pretty picture, or a hopeful one. Everyone has a sob story or an elaborate explanation. But schools and other essential institutions don’t run on words. It’s time for good people to get good and mad.
From where I sit, it's long past time for good people to get mad, but I'm happy to see the Fayetteville paper coming around. It'll be interesting to watch their endorsements this fall. Will they support sending Flip-Floppin' Robin back to Washington? Or maybe, just maybe, they'll connect the sorry dots and see the pattern of irresponsible public policy that Robin Hayes and his ilk have foisted on local governments all across the state.