If you're going to suck another $1.5 billion out of one of the most devastated employment economies in the nation, you need high drama.
So last week, state leaders trotted out blind kids to advocate for higher taxes. For days after that, students at the state's school for the blind served as handy props in N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue's oh-so-broke budget spiel.
The state might have to close down the school, Perdue whined, if legislators didn't shake down the taxpayers for about $1.5 billion, roughly double what the state House proposed last week.
To recap, that proposal included a sales tax hike to 7 percent, which would mean only California, at 7.25 percent, will have a higher rate. Just five states -- Indiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Rhode Island and New Jersey -- will have the same rate. It also included a boost to the top two income tax brackets to 8.25 and 8.5 percent. If that passes, only California, Vermont, Oregon, Maine, New Jersey, Iowa and Hawaii have a higher top rate. And we'll have a heck of a time recruiting business here with our new state slogan: "North Carolina -- not quite California and marginally better than New Jersey."
And that's still not good enough for Perdue and friends. So she and the Democrats who run the state are spinning the fiction that they've cut the budget to the bone and would be forced to slash school spending and turn disabled children out on the streets without a massive tax hike. To hear the rhetoric, you'd think that living within a $20-billion budget this year, down from a $21-billion budget last year, would kill people. (They actually had pro-tax protestors two weeks ago at the state capital claiming that people would die if they cut the budget.)
But is it true?
Last month, while teachers here and across the state were getting pink slips due to the supposedly busted budget, Perdue was kicking up her heels at a "sand breaking" for the new state-funded $22.5-million North Carolina Aquarium Pier in affluent Nags Head. When finished, the tourist destination will include a 16,000-square-foot pier house that can be rented for parties. Construction began weeks after Perdue signed a bill funding it this spring.
Last week, she claimed she feels the teachers' pain. But why, then, didn't the state cancel money for the pier or try to claw back the $2-million ACC Hall of Champions in Greensboro? What about the $2.3 million still in the budget for the state symphony? Or the $4.7 million for the zoo fund and adopt-a-trail program? Or the $536,000 for the Ergonomics Center at N.C. State University, which designs user-friendly office furniture? Then there's $1.2 million for the botanical garden at UNC-Chapel Hill, $13.1 million for the state's public television station, $300,000 to resurrect and display Blackbeard's ship, $33 million for new museums/museum expansions across the state, and more than $50 million for the arts and theater programs.
This is just a sample. Hundreds of items like these, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars -- maybe billions, litter the massive state budget. They're nice, but they are also things we have chosen to fund ahead of the blind, the students and the teachers Perdue now claims she is trying to save.
The teachers aren't the only ones Perdue has thrown off the pier.
"I don't believe that you can raise taxes in an economy with folks struggling the way they are," Perdue told the Raleigh News & Observer in October, before she was elected. It was a familiar refrain throughout the campaign that ended soon after the election. At the time, the state's unemployment rate was 7 percent. Last month, it was 11.1, the fifth worst in the nation and a record high for the state.
If the state sucks billions more out of the economy in the coming years, things won't improve. As Raleigh blogger Matthew Cook recently pointed out, in the 2009 edition of the Tax Foundation's best and worst places to do business based on taxes, North Carolina ranked a dismal No. 39, just missing the worst 10 by two places. If the new taxes the governor and the legislature want were to pass, the state would probably make the "10 Worst List" next year.
That Perdue and the legislature haven't made a serious effort to trim the fat out of the budget while North Carolinians struggle to survive this recession is criminal.