Despite the charges of socialism, redistributive economics, or a so-called Republican war on urban and more Democratic counties, the debate over sales tax distribution is actually needed at the General Assembly, and has been for a long time.
Senator Harry Brown has not only showed courage and tenacity on this issue, but the Jacksonville Republican teed up a policy debate that until now has largely been confined to campaign stump speeches.
Senator John Edwards and "two North Carolinas" comes to mind, but can anyone think of the presidential hopeful's proposed solutions? I didn't think so.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not convinced Senator Brown's bill, in its current form, is exactly what we need, but I see both sides of the argument. In fact, I've lived it.
I was born in Kenansville, North Carolina, the county seat in Duplin, about an hour-plus east on interstate 40 from Raleigh, and I still have extended family living there. You've likely stopped at our rest stop in Warsaw on your way to the beach and spent a little money at a gas station and fast food restaurant.
When I was a kid growing up there in the 1970s, downtown Kenansville retail was a hardware store, where I got my first Western Flyer bike, the local IGA grocery, and a Tastee Freeze. For major shopping, most families bypassed downtown and headed up to the Vernon Mall in Kinston, a thriving metropolis if there ever was one, at least in my eyes at the time.
And we weren't alone. My parents, along with our hard-working friends and neighbors in Duplin County, one of the poorest counties in our state, took their hard-earned pay checks out of our county on weekends, purchased goods in a more developed county with shopping centers and malls, and left our sales taxes behind to be re-allocated for improved infrastructure, schools, and economy. The problem is we weren't investing in our county.
This transfer of sales tax money from counties like Duplin still occurs today and it's the economic development gap that widens with every purchase in an urban county by a rural taxpayer that Senator Brown is trying to fix.
You can see these gaps in the way smaller counties fund, or struggle to fund, local school systems, infrastructure, public safety, parks and recreation, and even workforce development.
Today, I live in Wake County, with Starbucks on every corner and shopping centers built everyday it seems. I understand the negative effect Senator Brown's bill would have on Wake, a county that subsidizes teacher pay at a high rate, competes for top talent, provides a menu of options for our parks and recreation programs (cricket, anyone?), and keeps us safe with police and a professional fire and paramedic department.
Just last week, I joined a group of Raleigh police officers for a meeting with a city council member and discussed the need for pay raises for the men and women who patrol our streets in the state capital. The council member was sympathetic, but laid out the budget deficit, $3.3 million, the City of Raleigh would lose if Senator Brown's latest version of his bill passed. We will have to wait and see, she said.
Governor Pat McCrory has already promised a veto of Senator Brown's bill in its current form, either as a budget item or a stand alone bill. The House is backing the governor on this one. And with budget negotiations going long, it's probably best that such an extraordinary tax policy shift not occur immediately.
But this issue deserves debate and we need to have the discussion now. And like many issues we give enough time and attention to at the General Assembly, legislators and stakeholders can come up with a balanced solution for our state, one that invests in our rural areas without burdensome budget deficits for urban areas.