For all the talk of a fiscal crisis this year and the need to tighten the belt of state government, Gov. Jim Hunt's proposed adjustments to the FY 2000-01 budget would hike General Fund operating spending by nearly 7 percent, vastly increase state debt, and deplete state savings accounts for many years to come. The budget also contains many new items of questionable merit. North Carolinians should not be surprised to see sizable tax increases in the future as a result.
As state lawmakers grapple with a projected budget gap of at least half a billion dollars, some observers have blamed recent tax cuts for the problem. But modest tax reductions in the mid-1990s followed big tax increases earlier in the decade. The net change in taxes in the 1990s was a tax increase of nearly half a billion dollars. Other proposed causes for the gap, including poor legal representation and excessive spending growth during the decade, are more persuasive.
Responding to calls for billions of dollars for capital needs in the UNC and community college systems, legislative leaders are considering asking voters to approve a $3.1 billion bond referendum this November. Because the bonds would more than double the state's debt burden and generate a debt service budget approaching $600 million in four years, taxpayers have little reason to believe that a bond issue of that size won't result in tax increases in the future.
The need for fundamental tax reform in North Carolina has never been more obvious. Unfortunately, Gov. Mike Easley's "tax loophole" commission is incapable of fashioning a sound reform plan. It lacks guiding principles, is using a faulty definition of "loophole," and is more interested in raising tax revenue than reducing tax biases. Policymakers should pursue simplicity, neutrality, and equity through a consumed-income tax and other ways to flatten and reduce tax rates.
North Carolina's new Child Health Insurance Program known as Health Choice has grown rapidly in its first two years, attracting national praise and prompting calls for additional funding to enroll more children. But the program, while helping to reduce the uninsured rate, has also contributed to a 30 percent drop in private coverage and self-sufficiency among families of modest means. Significant changes are needed to ensure a better use of taxpayer dollars.
Among the major causes of this year's $800 million state budget deficit is a $108 million increase in projected Medicaid spending. After a brief period of slow growth in the late-1990s, North Carolina's Medicaid program is now a significant threat to the state's long-term fiscal health. It is also the most expensive Medicaid program in the South. The state should enact reforms in eligibility and benefits which could save taxpayers at least $251 million a year.
State policymakers are considering a $43 million request for additional funding for poor school districts and awaiting the resolution of the Leandro school finance case. They should keep in mind that funding disparities among North Carolina school districts are minor due to their primary reliance on state rather than local taxes. Indeed, in inflation-adjusted spending per pupil, the state's 25 poorest districts are better funded today than the 25 richest districts were 11 years ago.
Policymakers should think carefully about the administrative costs of raising revenue through a state lottery. In effect, the state would be legalizing gambling, establishing a state monopoly on it, and then taxing gross sales at a 33 percent rate. The cost per dollar collected of this lottery tax would be 20 to 50 times greater than the cost of raising rates for other state taxes that already exist. The best course for the state is not to raise taxes at all but to reduce the size of government.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Mike Easley stated his case for a state lottery for North Carolina by suggesting that it would raise up to $500 million annually and that North Carolina's neighbors were collecting "hundreds of millions of dollars" from N.C. lottery players. Neither assertion is correct. The net proceeds from a lottery will likely be no more than $285 million. And a lottery's administrative costs would far exceed the current "loss" of revenue to other state lotteries.
Gov. Jim Hunt's long-awaited budget recommendations for FY 1999-2001 do not actually present a full balanced budget to state lawmakers. Instead, the plan offers sizable increases in operating spending, particularly for education and corrections, while listing only "options" for dealing with the more problematic capital and nonrecurring sides of the General Fund budget. Of the $400 million in proposed "savings," the vast majority come from correcting the administration's earlier errors in projecting debt service and Medicaid costs.
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