Opinion: Daily Journal

It’s All About the Priorities

RALEIGH – North Carolina’s most populous county – which also happens to be the highest-taxed urban community in the state – seems poised to hike property taxes once again. The new Democratic majority on the county commission has reportedly said that a tax-rate hike is “all but certain” to pay for growth in operating expenses. On top of that, past and planned issuances of county debt may well lead to more tax increases in the future.

As I was reading about this in The Charlotte Observer, I noted two other nearby stories. One was about the prospect of getting state funds, and state permission for higher local taxes, to finance a “NASCAR Hall of Fame” in the area. Most of the cost of it, or about $103 million, would come from the local taxes, on hotels and restaurants – and contrary to what some may believe, a good chunk of that would come directly from the coffers of local businesses and households.

The other story had to do with the long-discussed idea of plopping a baseball park uptown for the Charlotte Knights, a minor-league team that currently plays (in front of not-very-many spectators) at a park across the state line in Fort Mill.

Parks Helms, the Democratic chairman of the Mecklenburg county commission, has favored the idea for a long time, including some role for taxpayers in subsidizing the effort. It was one of a set of projects packaged with a new arena for the then-Charlotte Hornets and put on the ballot a few years ago in an attempt to distract voters. It didn’t work. “I’m not giving up on it,” Helms vows. Apparently not – he just got most of the commission to agree to a “feasibility study” of converting an existing stadium into a ballpark, presumably with millions of city or county tax dollars.

Talk about irony. I find it amazing how many officials can’t see the inconsistency in 1) pushing for higher taxes because of the need to fund government’s “essential services,” such as public safety or school construction, while 2) endorsing various schemes to spend tax revenue on tourist attractions, ballparks, and other projects that, by any reasonable definition, are furlongs away from any “essential service.”

As I pointed out in a previous discussion of school impact fees, it is a fallacy to suggest that new revenue sources are needed to fund government’s highest-priority needs. By definition, if there are higher priorities, there must be lower priorities. Whatever is at the bottom of the priority list is what gets funded by new taxes and fees. My colleague Roy Cordato made this point recently about the proposed state lottery: supporters say it would be for school construction and college scholarships, but if these are so important, why doesn’t the state of North Carolina get rid of other things – corporate welfare, new museums, the Global TransPark – in order to fund them? In effect, a state lottery would keep these things in the state budget, not add to education investment.

Similarly, in Mecklenburg County any higher taxes purportedly to build and operate classrooms will first be paying to subsidize sports, museums, the arts, recreation, school administrators, and other such flotsam and jetsam – claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.