JLF Research Archive
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Political observers may welcome the North Carolina House’s uncharacteristic speed in devising its 2003-05 budget plan by its previously announced deadline of Easter weekend, but state taxpayers are unlikely to view its nearly $860 million in extra taxes over the next two fiscal years as timely given the weakness of the state’s economic recovery. By working harder to identify budget savings, lawmakers could have avoided the tax increase without adversely affecting teachers, prisons, or other core services of state government.
The North Carolina General Assembly faces a critical choice about the state’s fiscal direction: whether to extend nearly $500 million in tax increases that politicians had previously promised were “temporary,” or to find additional savings to balance the FY 2003-04 budget. Since the taxes were originally imposed in 2001, North Carolina’s business growth has fallen short of the Southastern average and its tax rates remain among the highest in the region and the nation. And according to the Tax Foundation, North Carolina's state/local tax burden has risen to 25th in the nation in 2003, up from 36th in 1998.
North Carolina faces significant fiscal and economic challenges over the next two years. But it need not resort to higher taxes, a state-run lottery, higher debt, or gimmickry to balance its budget. Nor does North Carolina need to skimp on crucial needs such as education and highways. By setting firm priorities within state government, eliminating unnecessary or duplicative programs, and charging users of some services a reasonable price, state leaders can generate sufficient savings to invest in the future needs of the state.
Gov. Mike Easley has proposed an annual cap on the growth of state spending in North Carolina that would be tied to personal income growth. In considering the idea, lawmakers should examine recent data that show state spending caps to be effective particularly if they rebate excess revenues to taxpayers and enjoy constitutional, rather than just statutory, authority. Without a spending cap, it is likely that fiscal discipline will disappear as the state’s economy recovers.
North Carolina lawmakers are once again coming to Raleigh to grapple with a projected deficit exceeding $1 billion. A close examination of fiscal trends demonstrates that excessive spending, not inadequate revenue, is the cause and that the state budget continues to be bloated with wasteful or low-priority expenditures. Policymakers must show courage, be willing to apply fundamental principles, and target major areas of state spending for savings and reform.
By the Numbers 2003: What Government Costs in North Carolina Cities and Counties is the fourth in a series of studies that examine local taxes, fees, and charges in every North Carolina communities. Charlotte ranks first among major cities in combined local government costs per person, with Hickory, Durham, Wilmington, and Cary rounding up the top tier. Among large urban counties, Durham and Mecklenburg have relatively high costs as a percentage of personal income.
After months of delay, the state legislature has enacted a revised FY 2002–03 budget that differs little from the plan originally proposed by Gov. Mike Easley in May. Lawmakers adopted nearly all the governor's $543 million raid on local government reimbursements and highway funds, changing only what percentage will be made up with a sales tax increase. Taxpayers are the big losers—entering the second of what promises to be three straight years of huge tax hikes.
As House and Senate leaders negotiate a final budget package for FY 2002-03, they should resist the usual temptation to "logroll" — to add in spending items favored by the other side — and instead accept the lower of the two chambers' previously approved figures for every department as well as the higher of the two chambers' previously approved fund transfers. With such "reverse logrolling," lawmakers could balance the state budget without a tax increase.
At this writing, the N.C. House is considering a revised General Fund budget of $14.3 billion, balanced largely by raising state taxes by $166 million, raiding $255 million from highway funds and $156 million from local governments, and achieving net budget savings of $478 million. Unfortunately, the news for taxpayers is likely to be worse next year, given the use of some $666 million in one-time money for expenses likely to recur — setting the stage for another tax increase.
Gov. Easley's new incentives proposal would put political appointees into the position of doling out special tax breaks that amount to grants of taxpayer money to private businesses. Because of the unpredictable nature of a free-market economy, such a policy cannot claim to boost overall economic growth. A better policy would be to reduce North Carolina sky-high marginal tax rates on personal income, investment, and capital gains - which are among the highest in the country.
The N.C. Senate is debating its proposed budget, which would reduce authorized FY 2002-03 spending by $585 million. Most of the $1.4 billion budget gap, however, would be closed with one-time revenues, including tax hikes and fund diversions, that will reportedly create a recurring deficit in FY 2003-04 approaching $800 million. Some leaders propose closing that gap with tax hikes, too, meaning that the total annual tax burden will have grown $1.4 billion from 2001 to 2003.
The state legislature is currently considering the idea of "decoupling" North Carolina's income tax code from the federal tax code in order to avoid implementation of several tax reductions associated with a federal economic-stimulus package. But North Carolina's weakened economy desperately needs the $258 million boost that adjusting state taxes on business and personal investment would provide. Policymakers could offset any revenue loss by reducing spending.
Gov. Mike Easley's proposed budget for FY 2002-03 includes $250 million in revenue from a state-run lottery that has yet to be enacted. Among many legitimate objections to the administration's idea are that expected net revenue is inflated by between 37 percent and 62 percent - creating a hole in the budget of as much as $96 million — and that the administrative costs of the lottery tax exceed both the cost of alternative taxes and any revenue "loss" to out-of-state lotteries.
Gov. Mike Easley's proposed budget adjustments for FY 2002-03 help to frame the coming fiscal debate in North Carolina. The plan relies primarily on increasing revenues — including more than $400 million in tax hikes, $250 million from a theoretical state lottery, and $210 million from raiding the state‘s Highway Trust Fund — rather than on budget savings. And contrary to the governor's assertion, his plan would increase state spending in the midst of a fiscal emergency.
With news of a worsening state budget and a weakened state economy, Locke Foundation analysts have updated last year's alternative budget with new projected savings and tax changes for FY 2002-03. The resulting Changing Course V budget would eliminate the deficit, repeal last year's hikes in sales and income taxes, stimulate the economy through additional tax relief and highway investment, and protect highpriority items such as public safety and classroom teachers.
In recent months, public officials have made a range of statements in an attempt to explain persistent state and local budget woes. Many of these assertions do not square with the facts. A collection of graphs and tables shows clearly that North Carolina government is out of line with neighboring states in spending, employment, and taxes. Moreover, revenue growth outpaced personal income growth during the 1990s, while debt service costs are projected to triple over 10 years.
According to state economists, North Carolina will face another budget deficit in FY 2001-02 of between $450 million and $900 million. The state's economy, weighted down by high taxes and poor public services, continues to lag behind the rest of the country. Unlike last year, policymakers cannot exempt such big-ticket items as Floyd relief, tobacco-settlement funds, universities, Medicaid, and bonds from scrutiny - and they should consider repealing last year's tax hikes.
Responding to Gov. Jim Hunt's call for $830 million in emergency hurricane relief, state lawmakers have nearly drained the state's rainy day fund. Calls for state tax hikes or a new borrowing binge have only been put off until the 2000 legislative session. But state leaders have no one to blame for the coming budget crisis but themselves. As national data reveal, North Carolina has hiked spending far more rapidly than the average state with little regard for the long-term impact.
A report released last week by the North Carolina Progress Board contained hundreds of long-term goals for the state. But the text was overshadowed by the comments of board member and UNC-W Chancellor James Leutze, who said the report showed North Carolina would never make it to the top tier of states without tax increases. Leutze's remarks were ill-timed and ill-informed but reflect the conventional wisdom about taxes and social progress. It’s wrong.
North Carolina's 1998-99 state budget grew by between 10 percent and 11 percent (depending on the measurement used) compared with the national average for state budget growth of only 5.4 percent. This follows a similar pattern last year. Growth in spending on Medicaid and education fueled North Carolina's exceptional budget increase. Overall, North Carolina spends more of its budget on education and correction, and less on Medicaid, than the average state. This mostly reflects differences in responsibilities given to local government.
Three new studies should give North Carolina policymakers pause about the state's current economic development policy. A Kenan Institute survey of international firms throws cold water on the notion that selective tax breaks for big business are an effective means of creating jobs. Along with two other reports, it suggests a different growth agenda: improve core public services such as roads and schools, tackle electricity restructuring, and reduce and reform taxes for everyone.
The lengthy budget negotiations between House and Senate this year resulted in a compromise that gave the Senate its spending priorities this year and the House its tax cuts in future years. Overall, when accounted for correctly, the state General Fund budget will top $13.1 billion in FY 1998-99, representing an 11 percent increase from last year. Spending growth outweighs tax cuts in FY 1998-99 by a ratio of 25 to 1 — but the picture improves somewhat in the out years, when House-sought cuts in sales and inheritance taxes are phased in.
Summary: The University of North Carolina Board of Governors has proposed a capital spending plan calling for nearly $5 billion over the next decade to modernize and expand the system. To pay for it, UNC wants the authority to raise funds by the issuance of two kinds of bonds that would not be subject to voter approval. While there is undeniable need to renovate academic buildings, taking care of the worst needs over the next four years would cost about $1.1 billion and could be handled through the existing budget process if repair and renovation were made the top university priority. The need for a large-scale construction program is dubious and does not require the use of non-voter-approved bonds.
State lawmakers will consider today a revised tax and spending plan for the 2001-03 biennium that promises to shove an already teetering economy, buffeted by layoffs and the prospect of war, into a full-blown and painful recession. Its massive tax hike will fuel a healthy increase in wasteful state spending and help to push the state’s tax burden well above that of Massachusetts, California, and all the Southeastern states — and higher than the national average for the first time.
Gov. Mike Easley and other proponents are reportedly preparing to resurrect the idea of a state lottery for North Carolina. The case for this regressive and unpredictable source of revenue has, if anything, weakened in recent months, as other states with lotteries have experienced significant revenue shortfalls. The fact remains that Easley is overestimating the lottery’s potential revenue, thus creating the risk of additional tax increases in the future to make up the difference.