Opinion: Daily Journal

A never-ending fight for freedom 

The 2017 legislative session built on reforms expanding freedom and improving essential government services

The 2017 legislative long session is over. Kind of.  In the wee hours of June 30, on the eve of the new fiscal year, the General Assembly adjourned, only to schedule encore sessions in August and September.  

 The session started with what seemed like the unending distraction of House Bill 2. After months of political posturing, Gov. Roy Cooper agreed to the latest and final compromise offer from legislative leaders. Finally, the focus was back on transformational reforms, which have established North Carolina as a national and regional leader in fiscal responsibility and economic growth. 

Taxes were cut again for the third consecutive budget cycle, about $3.6 billion over five years. That includes lower corporate and personal income rates, another increase in the zero tax bracket for families and a boost to businesses with changes to the franchise tax and mill machinery tax.  

Revenue surplus went, not for more government but into savings. North Carolina’s savings reserves now stand at the highest level in history. Hurricane Matthew flood victims were helped. A new law mandates 15 percent of any extra state revenue go into savings accounts. We’re making smart decisions today to ensure future fiscal stability.  

Every budget passed since 2011 has kept government spending under the growth of inflation plus population. That restraint isn’t required in our constitution, and it’s not mandated in statute. It’s a result of good leadership.  

Rules are still being reviewed and the criteria for those reviews continue to be tightened; replacing burdens with opportunity. Lawmakers have eased rules  that restricted entrepreneurs in the craft beer and distillery industries with more opportunities to sell and share their products, building growing businesses.

An unreasonable threshold imposed by alcohol wholesalers on the distribution of craft beer was widely acknowledged as an affront to free markets. Whether through the courts or back in the legislature, efforts to preserve the free market in the alcohol industry will continue.  

Corporate welfare snake oil schemes just never go away. This session saw last year’s new market tax credit reappear as a rural job creation fund. Once lawmakers recognized this as just another taxpayer funded money grab by a special interest, it was quickly shot down. But the foolish special grant program for the film industry grew by $15 million. Although the incentives have gone from cash giveaways to more measured grants with job-creation requirements, there’s still plenty of snake oil peddled as free-market solutions. 

School choice is thriving. An estimated 17 percent of North Carolina families will choose an option outside traditional public schools. Last year about 92,000 students attended a public charter school, 127,000 students were home-schooled, and more than 100,000 students chose private schools, an all-time high. Opportunity scholarships got $10 million this year and additional funding for the next 10 years. Personal Education Savings Accounts will soon be available to special needs kids, enabling them to access resources for what they need as they need it.  

Implementation of an achievement school district is under way, finally turning around our worst performing schools. Teacher pay was increased again this year, now to an average range that’s competitive. Compensation now moves toward increasing professional opportunities for teacher and principals, with pilot programs offering enhanced pay based on performance and student outcomes.   

A fair and effective criminal justice system is a stalwart measure of freedom.  We were proud to champion raising the age for non-violent 16- and 17-year-old offenders to be treated as juveniles, and not tried as adults. This decreases the likelihood of those young offenders being repeat offenders and saves the state money in reduced prison costs. 

Ensuring low cost, available energy attracts businesses and keeps families’ expenses in check.  Re-working PURPA contacts gives energy providers more free-market contracting options and lowers costs for everyone. Part of a large stakeholder bill this session that unfortunately also held concessions for the already heavily subsidized renewable industry, the measure moved us closer to energy freedom overall.   

Funding for the Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program, prioritizing transportation and infrastructure projects based on data, not politics, increased by $320 million. 

The Map Act, which allowed the department of transportation to reserve and tie up land for future roads for decades, was declared unconstitutional and full repeal is likely.   

To ensure delivery of services to qualified recipients, regular audits of the state welfare programs will identity, punish, and eliminate fraudsters.  

What’s left? Recodify the criminal code, repeal capital gains tax, repeal certificate of need, eminent domain protections, redistricting that ensures competitive elections, occupational licensing reform. It’s a never-ending fight for freedom. Lawmakers will be back, and so will we. You can count on it. 

Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation.