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Lawmakers must change course

Alexandra Sirota

Alexandra Sirota

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

While we await the estimates of the full economic impact of Hurricane Florence — a number likely to total in the billions and to exceed Hurricane Matthew just two years ago — it is clear that the storm's effects are causing great harm to families and communities.

The loss of homes, businesses, and farms, the displacement from communities, and the destruction of schools, roads, and infrastructure have been immense. What's more, each event sets off a chain reaction of choices that families and policymakers will have to confront.

Given the scope of the disaster, it is essential that our leaders choose this time to build toward an equitable recovery focused on achieving greater resiliency. This means making sure that each person directly impacted has the resources to rebuild their lives — no matter who they are or where they come from. It means that systems need to change to support community resiliency and the ability to weather future storms.

Policy choices in Raleigh in the coming days and weeks will matter a great deal. Although the hurricane itself was an event of nature, its severity and many of its worst impacts were anything but. Indeed, policy choices have assured that these events will continue to diminish the quality of life of North Carolinians: the choice to push people who can't afford housing to low-lying areas because of the color of their skin; the choice to reject the scientific realities of climate change or to plan development accordingly so as to protect our water supplies and steward our rivers; the choice not to adequately fund the systems — schools, social services — that connect the next generation to opportunity and those most in need to the basics.

North Carolina can't afford to continue to ignore the need for a recovery that is adequately and equitably funded and that is oriented toward long-term resiliency.

The good news is that North Carolina has the resources to achieve such a vision. State policymakers have, for years, been forgoing investments in schools, public health, and environmental protection to sock money away in the state's Rainy Day Fund. That fund now has a balance of $2 billion. State legislators also chose not to appropriate $500 million in revenue they took in last year.

These dollars should be accessed immediately. At the same time, legislators should consider removing their self-imposed super-majority voting requirements for accessing the Rainy Day Fund. This would assure that, in times of need, funding can be made available quickly without the backroom deals and vote swapping that inevitably result from such limits to accessing the people's money.

An even more important move by legislators would be to postpone or cancel the scheduled tax cuts for big companies and individuals. These tax cuts, set to go into effect in January 2019, will continue to lower the tax rates on income and profits of the rich and profitable corporations and reinforce the tax changes implemented since 2013. Stopping these tax cuts would provide approximately $900 million for addressing emerging needs in the next fiscal year.

In the end, if we want to achieve resiliency, we must make sure our tax code can fund that effort in the long-term. Right now, it cannot. Tax cuts since 2013 that have primarily benefited the rich and big companies have meant we aren't investing in healthy learning environments for our children, ensuring access to affordable housing, or providing the oversight and monitoring of our water and sewer systems or the polluters who burden them. It means, over time, that we won't have the dollars to sustain our current commitments, let alone rebuild in a smarter way.

Voters can do their part too by rejecting a proposed income tax cap to the state constitution that appears on this fall's general election ballot. That change would further limit the tools available to future policymakers and all but assure that the damage inflicted by our leaders' recent policy choices will continue to haunt us.

Funding a resilient recovery from Hurricane Florence is within reach. State leaders — and particularly the General Assembly — just have to choose to do it.

Alexandra Sirota is the director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center. 

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