In May, North Carolina voters will go to the polls, and in at least 14 counties they’ll vote on tax increases.
Or, more accurately, in May most North Carolina voters won’t go to the polls. These are primaries, and the turnout will be low. Four years ago, turnout was just less than 16 percent. Most voters, therefore, will miss the opportunity to weigh in on these tax increases. That’s a shame, because these matter.
Most of these counties are proposing an increase in the local sales tax. A few are voting on bonds, which will require an increase in the property tax. All of them, if passed, will increase the amount of money local families hand over to the government in one way or another. All of them will reduce the amount of money that those families keep in their own pockets.
That makes these taxes a moral issue. After all, the money raised through taxes comes from county residents who work hard to earn it. Politicians are spending other people’s money. So, when I see a bond issue or a sales tax increase on the ballot, I ask a lot of questions. Is it really necessary? Are they spending every single dime that they already have well? Have they eliminated every possible item in the existing budget that they could trim, rather than taking yet more of people’s money? Is this tax increase an absolutely unavoidable last resort?
Then I look at urban art projects and grants to festivals. I look at incentive payments to corporations. I look at unused bike lanes and yet another public park. And I’m pretty sure the answer to all of my questions is “no.”
Of course, there’s waste in the current system. Of course, if they had to, they could find something in the current budget to trim. The tax increase isn’t absolutely unavoidable. But it’s easier to add a quarter cent to the sales tax than to make hard choices about cutting spending.
Local sales tax increases generally don’t do well on ballots. In 2007, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties to increase their sales taxes by a quarter cent and use the revenue to bolster the county’s general fund. It can be used for anything but is subject to public referendum. County Commissioners love the tax. They’ve put it on ballots 127 times (not counting this year). Voters seem a lot less excited about it. It has passed only 31 times.
I suspect that’s because voters are asking the same questions I am about whether the increases are really necessary. I also suspect that, when voters look at their own personal budgets, they can think of lots of ways to use a few extra dollars rather than giving it to the county.
Elected officials would do well to listen to voters who have rejected these taxes sometimes as many as four or five times. And they would also do well to remember the money they’re so quick to spend comes from taxpayers, including parents who are working two jobs and still only just making rent or seniors who are on fixed incomes and barely making ends meet.
Rather than taking more in taxes, elected officials should go back to their budgets and figure out where they can save. It won’t be easy. But it’s what the taxpayers who foot the bill are doing with their personal budgets when things get tight. It should be the way local governments operate, as well.