RALEIGH – Remember the Garrison Keillor public radio routine about “Lake Wobegon,” that mythical place in Minnesota where, among other things, “all the children are above average”?
Keillor is rarely as funny or insightful as he thinks he is, but with that line he captured a truth about parents and how they view their own children. Recently, I’ve noticed a similarly warped perspective on the issue of equity in North Carolina. As I read newspapers from or travel to communities across the state, I see the same argument: “We have never gotten our fair share of tax dollars from Raleigh.”
The urban areas of the state, for example, have banded together to form a new lobbying group to seek more state dollars for transportation, education, and other needs. Rural areas have long relied on statewide associations like the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners to press their case of funding inequity. You see the same dynamic playing out in the school-finance equity litigation over the past decade and a half. First, parents in smaller and rural districts sued to get their fair share of state education dollars. Then big urban-systems joined in, saying “yes, you are being stiffed, but so are we.” Apparently, according to this odd argument, a handful of in-between districts, neither urban nor rural, are making out like bandits from the system — except that suburbanizing counties like Cabarrus, Davidson, Alamance, and Johnston tend to be rather cash-strapped themselves, and often are at the bottom of the per-pupil expenditure charts.
On a regional basis, same deal. Eastern North Carolina has being bleating for decades that it deserves more financial largesse from the rest of the state, citing lackluster economic growth and poverty. In its view, equitable funding means taking revenues generated elsewhere in the state and “investing” it in pork barrel projects down east. Western North Carolina has a similar beef, to switch meaty metaphors, but rarely admits that the higher costs of building infrastructure in the mountains tend to explain at least part of the problem. Meanwhile, in the Piedmont, where the tax money disproportionately is generated, they have this quaint notion that “equity” means receiving dollars in rough proportion to taxes paid.
Let’s call this the “Lake Woeisme” Effect, with apologies to Keillor. (On second thought, he owes us a rather big apology himself for being such a liberal windbag, so we’ll call it even). Every community and region in North Carolina thinks it is being stiffed. By definition, this cannot be true.
But that won’t stop politicians from making the argument. You see, it is always more attractive to blame someone else — those greedy, parochial state legislators in Raleigh won’t fork over the dough! — rather than take responsibility for your own problems. The fact is, every part of North Carolina has received significant increases in the past two decades in school funding, road funding, human services funding, and the like. These dollars have not been well-invested.
Another generation of pols paddling furiously around Lake Woeisme isn’t going to improve the situation.