When CNBC ranked North Carolina the best state in America for business a few weeks ago, Democrats and Republicans spun the news in familiar ways. The former used it to promote the leadership of Gov. Roy Cooper, citing CNBC’s own take that the state had prevailed against its Sunbelt competitors by “putting partisanship aside” and avoiding contentious debates on social issues. GOP politicos and activists responded by touting the benefits of a decade’s worth of pro-growth tax and regulatory reforms by the General Assembly — most of which Cooper opposed, which in their view makes it hypocritical for him to claim credit for the CNBC ranking.
If you look closely at its methodology, you’ll find some support for both political takes. But you’ll also find key insights that produced no headlines.
The study’s sources included the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index and the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America Index, both of which gave North Carolina high marks. However, the study also included voting-rights rankings from the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice and anti-discrimination rankings from Freedom for All Americans, an LGBTQ-rights organization.
As it happens, North Carolina didn’t rank in the top five, much less at the top of the list, in any of the broad categories encompassing those measures. CNBC ranked our state 26th in the cost of doing business (Missouri was first), 22nd in business friendliness (North Dakota was first), and 28th in “life, health, and inclusion,” a category in which Vermont ranked first and the likes of Florida (39th), Tennessee (42nd), Texas (49th), and Arizona (50th) fared poorly.
If you were wondering why those fast-growing states ended up lower on CNBC’s list than North Carolina, now you know one of the main reasons.
So, how did our state end up at the top of the overall list? Because CNBC used a weighted average of many different categories — and North Carolina ranked either middling or high in all of them. Other CNBC categories included access to capital (2nd), technology and innovation (5th), workforce (12th), education (14th), and infrastructure (17th).
Some of our high rankings are related to policy choices by lawmakers and other public officials. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, North Carolina has a comparatively high return on public investment in highways and public schools, and remains one of the most generous state funders of higher education in the country. You and I may disagree about the causes and practical consequences of these conditions. But because of the way CNBC set up its study, they were bound to boost North Carolina’s overall score.
Other high rankings for our state, however, have more to do with longstanding structural features of its economy, such as its strong banking and finance sector (which has its roots in policy choices, yes, but those made more than a century ago when lawmakers adopted relatively loose regulation of statewide branching and bank-issued insurance products).
In only one of the study’s constituent categories did our state rank at the very top of the national list — but it was a big one. After North Carolina, the top-scoring states in CNBC’s “economy” category were Tennessee, Washington, Florida, and Idaho. The category included measures of job creation, GDP growth, real estate markets, the presence of corporate headquarters, and the fiscal condition and creditworthiness of state and local governments.
Take special note of those latter measures. Over the past decade the General Assembly has prudently built up the state’s financial reserves, protecting its triple-A credit ratings while sending a clear signal to entrepreneurs, investors, job creators, and corporate decisionmakers that North Carolina is better prepared than most other places to weather future storms, be they meteorological or economic. State Treasurer Dale Folwell has also played a key role in improving the state’s fiscal position and preparedness.
There’s nothing particularly exciting about paying off debts or stashing money in rainy-day accounts and defined-benefit reserves. It doesn’t make headlines. It just makes good sense.