Gov. Pat McCrory told area business and community leaders last week they might be shocked to hear him say northeastern North Carolina should seek closer ties with Virginia as the region pursues future growth opportunities. But in truth, none of the governor’s listeners should have been all that surprised.
The idea of hitching northeastern North Carolina’s economic fortunes to the Tidewater region has been a staple of stump speeches for decades, as politicians of all stripes making a visit here have alluded to it at one time or another. Of course, those closer ties haven’t happened, and likely never will. But the idea does sound good, and it makes everyone feel better about the future, so who can resist saying it?
Obviously of more interest to McCrory’s listeners was what he intends to do to make sure their region has closer ties to their own state.
McCrory in fact was asked that question during his lunchtime visit to Elizabeth City. The questioner wondered if northeastern North Carolina would be forgotten in Raleigh now that McCrory, a Republican former mayor of Charlotte, and an increasingly urban legislature are in control in the state capital.
McCrory made a good point in response, noting that no regional economy in North Carolina can be forgotten, because to do so would have ripple effects for the entire state. He pointed out that the less tax revenue the state collects from the northeast, the less it has overall to spend on roads, police, teachers and other critical services.
That’s certainly true. Trouble is, McCrory and the Republican leadership in the state House and Senate don’t seem to have any specific plan for boosting the northeast’s economy, or any rural economy for that matter, so that it can send more tax revenue to Raleigh. If they do have a general approach to rebuilding the state’s economy, it seems to be based on a “trickle out” philosophy — boost job growth in the state’s urban centers and the benefits will eventually trickle out to rural communities. It’s an approach that seems destined to reverse the gains rural areas have made in recent decades.
McCrory has already signed into law legislation extremely harmful to rural communities. One rejects an expansion of Medicaid that would have greatly increased the number of rural residents benefiting from the federal health care program while also adding hundreds of new medical jobs and boosting the bottom line of rural hospitals. Another significantly guts the benefits jobless workers, including many in the northeast where unemployment has been in double digits for years, have come to rely on as the economy continues to struggle.
McCrory has also proposed a transportation plan that significantly alters the road-building dollars rural communities like ours currently depend on. Under McCrory’s proposed changes, more of the state’s road money would go toward “job-creating” projects of statewide importance. Rural areas would still get a share of the money to spend on road maintenance and improvement, but the amount would be less.
Defending his plan during a visit to Edenton last week, McCrory said the current road-funding formula “hasn’t brought jobs to rural areas.” Of course, his proposal won’t either. What it’s designed to do, according to both McCrory and his transportation secretary, Tony Tata, is better connect rural areas to the state’s economic and job centers. In other words, residents of rural areas will have better roads to drive on if they want to leave the areas where they live to go someplace else and work; they just won’t have those same good roads where they live.
McCrory’s budget also imposes tolls on all state ferries, including the one used by residents of rural Knotts Island to get back and forth from the Currituck mainland. Apparently the governor thinks there’s something unfair about folks and schoolkids in coastal areas riding ferries for free, even though in the case of Knotts Island, the ferry across Currituck Sound is their highway.
Not to be outdone, the Republican-controlled state Senate last week approved a state budget for next year that targets economic programs and job-creation initiatives that have benefited rural areas in the past. The budget eliminates funding for both the Rocky Mount-based Golden LEAF Foundation and the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, both of which have provided grants to important projects in rural areas, including ours. It also eliminates state funding for the job-creating regional economic development commissions, including the one in our region based in Edenton.
Most significantly, the Senate budget sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars for an overhaul of the state tax code that will shift more of the state’s tax burden from wealthier North Carolinians to poorer and middle-class ones. The proposal lowers corporate and personal income tax rates, replacing the lost revenue with a higher and expanded sales tax. The proposal will raise the sales tax on food and prescription drugs, increases that will put a significant dent in rural residents’ pocketbooks.
Come to think of it now, McCrory’s recommendation that northeastern North Carolina seek closer links to Virginia might have been more than lip service to a well-worn idea. Given Republicans’ all-to-clear message to rural areas not to look to Raleigh for help, the governor might actually have been telling us what his growth plan for northeastern North Carolina is.