Alexandra Sirota: Demanding transparency and fairness: North Carolina’s budget process needs reform

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 30, 2024

By Alexandra Sirota

North Carolina House and Senate spending plans released last week show we can’t fix the big problems we face in our state without asking the wealthy and profitable corporations to pay what they owe in taxes. 

Low rates on the income taxes paid by wealthy individuals and profitable corporations mean billions of fewer dollars for priorities that people have today. By keeping these income tax cuts in place and following through on the planned complete elimination of the corporate income tax, without consideration for the rising costs we are all facing, our elected leaders are choosing to ignore that public money could make our lives better.

Making sure childcare providers are paid and can stay open, providing teachers and school personnel with competitive pay, cleaning up our air and water to reduce public health issues, and ensuring everyone who needs health care can access it are priorities that people across the state want addressed. In a recent poll, North Carolinians rejected the income tax cuts pursued by legislative leaders in favor of funding priorities that put people and communities first. 

It’s a shame then that last week, the public finally got to see spending plans at the last minute that were the product of some lawmakers’ closed-door negotiations that should have been open to the public from the beginning. 

Unsurprisingly, they failed to meet the needs of the moment and, even more concerning, may not even result in a final budget by the fiscal year deadline of June 30 because of disagreements between a small number of legislators. 

The lack of public input and transparency in the budget process is troubling. But it also demonstrates the unchecked power that a small group of legislative leaders have over our public money each year.  

The resulting budgets that get produced from this insular process are unsurprisingly disconnected from the realities of everyday North Carolinians and will fail to fund a better future for us all. 

There are several examples of where these proposals fell short. The House budget uses federal money and reserves for meager, one-time funding for childcare needs, falling short of what both agency staff and childcare advocates have demanded. Rather than addressing the impending childcare crisis that would severely impact North Carolinian families and businesses, legislative leaders propose to divert more state money to private school vouchers that primarily benefit wealthy families.

Meanwhile, the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic public education for every child remains unfunded, and necessary pay raises for public sector workers, such as teachers and state employees, are also absent.

But the budget proposals aren’t the only policy developments of concern in Raleigh lately. The state Senate is attempting to enact a change to our state constitution that would cap the state income tax at 5 percent. This is an unnecessary — and undemocratic and costly — move that primarily benefits those with higher incomes and highly profitable corporations. With an income tax cap in place, instead of asking the wealthiest few to pay what they owe, lawmakers will likely turn to fees, sales tax, gambling expansions, and cuts to public services to make up for the lost revenue — raising the costs for the majority of North Carolinians. 

We should all be clear that this is a political ploy that would do nothing to ensure our public money is well spent, that our tax code is fair, or that the total taxes paid by most North Carolinians remain low. It would make it far more difficult for future voters to have a say in how our tax policy should meet our priorities.

When North Carolina leaders start to ask the wealthy few and profitable corporations to pay what they owe in taxes so we can invest in the people of our state, we can build a thriving economy for all. These crucial investments will help our communities provide the well-being that every person in our state deserves.

We need bolder, more responsive leadership willing to conduct a budget process reflecting the priorities of the people. The potential for a prosperous North Carolina exists, but it requires a commitment to transparency and a focus on the needs of all our residents, not just the privileged few.

This first appeared on N.C. Newsline.