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John Hood opines daily on the important issues facing North Carolinians.
Updated: 20 min 48 sec ago

On alcohol reform, state lawmakers have finally started to listen

11 hours 53 min ago

State lawmakers, to their credit, have started to listen.

The loudest proponents of alcohol reform in North Carolina — lawmakers such as Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance — now have their colleagues’ unwavering attention.


Breweries and wineries are now free of the long-time restrictive and tired rules from an overbearing parent, that being the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Brewers and vintners have prospered as a result. They are, in fact, thriving.

Now, Gunn recently told a legislative committee, it’s time for us to do the same thing for N.C. craft distilleries.

At the risk of muddling the separation of church and state: Amen.

Prohibitionists and those worried about giving up what’s become a local entitlement — revenue generated by a proliferation of politically motivated ABC boards — remain, but their voices are now soft, their arguments mostly inaudible.

Too much is at stake — tourism, jobs, the economy, duh — to maintain the state’s chokehold on N.C. craft distillers.

We think it’s time the state rid itself of the cumbersome ABC board system. That it’s time, rather, turn to a licensure model, for instance, as McGrady has proposed. Or even a centralized system, such as Virginia’s. Dissolution of the boards may well happen. Someday.

As the state’s distillers have often said: Baby steps. Problem is, our neighbors have broken into, if not a full sprint, then a pretty decent jog when it comes to modernizing liquor sales.

Nationally, the mood is changing, too.

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Tennessee law that prevented new residents from getting a license to sell liquor. The law had required people to live in the state for two years before they could apply for the license.

A Utah couple, Doug and Mary Ketchum, challenged the law. As The New York Times wrote, the family moved to Memphis in the hope that the weather there would be better for their disabled daughter, and by Total Wine, a large retailer. A federal appeals court struck down the two-year residency requirement, saying it violated the Constitution by discriminating against new residents.

The question in Tennessee Wine And Spirits Retailers Assn. v. Thomas was whether the 21st Amendment gave states the authority to pass laws in violation of the Commerce Clause. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority in the 7-to-2 decision, the Times wrote, said the amendment failed to authorize states to discriminate against new residents. ‘“Because Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement for retail license applicants blatantly favors the state’s residents,’ the Times reporting says, ‘and has little relationship to public health and safety, it is unconstitutional.’”

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, which advocates for consumer choice and freedom. He’s speaking in general, but, clearly, North Carolina may well be the unavoidable target for his comments.

“In many southern states and beyond, alcohol-control laws are some of the most byzantine and backward on the books. Indeed, many have not changed in the 86 years since the end of Prohibition.

“These laws treat adults like children, stunt economic growth, deprive consumers of better choices, and drastically increase costs for everyday people who just want a drink at the end of a hard day’s work.”

McGrady takes that argument a step further. His district includes the sprawling Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River.

“A lot of times it’s much older legislators, who will freely admit either they don’t drink any alcoholic beverages or don’t … buy beer or wine or haven’t been any of the new facilities,” McGrady said.

They would do well to take a look, if only for the sake of N.C. craft distillers, as well as the state’s consumers.

“Really, in four or five years we’ve gotten a lot of movement. A few more retirements over the years and, more importantly, more exposure, as these little small businesses — distilleries, breweries, cideries, wineries  — become part of the community, those legislators are going to recognize that,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of lot at stake, and these things bring people into the area. I think I think we’re winning the battle.”

It’s a battle, though, that’s still far from over.

Categories: Public Policy

How to resolve budget impasse

Wed, 2019-07-17 01:01

North Carolina’s state government entered its 2019-20 fiscal year on July 1 without a new state budget in place. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led legislature haven’t agreed to one, yet. But unless you work for the state, work closely with state-funded entities, or follow state politics closely, you may not have noticed.

Unlike recent budget stalemates in Washington, the face-off between Cooper and legislative leaders in Raleigh hasn’t produced a government shutdown. State departments are still operating. Public schools, universities, and hospitals are either open or preparing to open as scheduled. There is no panic.

Thanks to a previously enacted law, the lack of a state budget simply means that agencies will continue to receive their recurring funds at last year’s spending levels. What doesn’t get funded? One-time needs, additional funds for enrollment growth, appropriations needed to draw down federal funds, new initiatives such as converting North Carolina’s Medicaid program to a managed-care system, and, perhaps most significantly, pay raises for public employees.

In response, the North Carolina House has already passed, and the North Carolina Senate seems poised to pass, a stopgap bill that addresses some of these needs, including enrollment growth and Medicaid reform. If the budget impasse continues, I can imagine lawmakers passing still another bill that just funds pay raises for teachers and state employees.

Cooper could, of course, veto those bills just as he vetoed the original budget. Having lost seats in both chambers in the 2018 elections, Republicans can no longer override the governor’s vetoes without Democratic assistance. But what will that accomplish?

The reason we have a budget impasse in the first place is that each side believes it is in the stronger negotiating position. Only one side is right about that. I think it’s the legislature.

Cooper cited a variety of reasons for vetoing the original budget bill. He doesn’t like the legislature’s cut in franchise taxes, the amount and manner of its pay hike for teachers, and its preference for cash over debt in financing school construction. But the most consequential dispute is about Medicaid. The governor wants to make passage of a new state budget contingent on expanding Medicaid. Legislative leaders don’t.

The general lack of panic here is not to Cooper’s advantage. Recurring funds are already in place for 2019-20. If he vetoes every supplemental bill the General Assembly sends to him — to fund new students, key initiatives, and potential pay increases — Cooper will clearly reveal himself to be the obstructionist in the story.

I doubt the general public will rise up in fury if there’s no new state budget in place, at least not in the short run. But those most affected by the lack of a new spending plan, such as vendors and public employees, will be immensely frustrated. On balance, I suspect they’ll blame the guy saying no, not the lawmakers saying yes.

There is a path out of this thicket, I think. It will require both sides to change course a bit, as is usually the case. Cooper will have to find a face-saving way to withdraw his ultimatum on Medicaid expansion. Perhaps the fact that an expansion bill already passed a House committee could be part of a declaration of partial victory. For their part, legislative leaders will have to budge on overall expenditures as well as specific line-items. But they already know that.

Like it or not, North Carolina has divided government. Neither party has the power to get everything it wants. Policymakers will have to reconcile themselves to the fact that accomplishing some of their most-cherished goals will not be possible in the short run. They’ll have to be patient, using the time either to persuade members of the other party or to defeat them in the next election.

In the meantime, while there is no emergency, North Carolina does need a full spending plan enacted for the 2019-20 fiscal year — and for the legislative session to conclude. Let’s get on with it.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Shifting the gerrymandering focus to distorted districts

Tue, 2019-07-16 04:02

Most debate about gerrymandering reform focuses on partisan outcomes. Reformers argue that objectionable election maps favor one major political party while hurting the other.

But focusing on the pros and cons for D’s and R’s distracts would-be reformers from a change that would benefit all voters. That’s the gist of a new report on gerrymandering from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Because of the nature and timing of its recommendations, the report could attract some attention. It follows the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month in North Carolina’s Rucho v. Common Cause case. That 5-4 decision shut the door on federal courts’ involvement in partisan gerrymandering cases.

Reformers looking for a national solution now must pursue options outside the legal system. The Mercatus report urges action from Congress instead of the courts.

“Gerrymandering is a substantial public policy problem and should be constrained,” said report author Charles Blahous, Mercatus senior research strategist. That assessment clearly places Blahous on the side of reformers, not defenders of the status quo.

But Blahous questions the way reformers have pursued their goal. “The focus on the political effects of gerrymandering has been somewhat misguided,” he said during an interview for the John Locke Foundation’s “HeadLocke” podcast. “Gerrymandering reform, if you want to do it right, shouldn’t be a matter of a political balancing exercise.”

The Rucho ruling affirmed a key aspect of previous Supreme Court opinions linked to gerrymandering, Blahous said. “The Constitution guarantees individual voting rights,” he said. “It does not protect every combination of political interests or political affiliations and guarantee them proportional representation.”

Rather than attempt to draw election maps that set aside a certain number of safe seats for Democrats and Republicans, reformers should take a different approach. “Clearly, the foundation idea of geographical districting is that people who share a constituency ought to live reasonably close to one another,” Blahous said. “To the extent that gerrymandering really warps and distorts the shapes of congressional districts, it’s departing from that principle.”

So gerrymandering reform ought to focus on “limiting the irregularity of district shapes.”

“You often see instances where there is a common-sense understanding of things from the person on the street, but when the political class gets hold of an issue, it twists it beyond all recognition,” Blahaus explained to podcast listeners. “I think most people, when they look at a map and they see districts twisting this way and that in all sorts of crazy ways, that offends their sense of how districting is supposed to be done.”

Only partisans and interest groups focus more attention on gerrymandering’s political outcomes. “I just don’t think that’s the way most people on the street think about it,” Blahaus said. “And I think people on the street are right not to think about it that way.”

Blahaus recommends that Congress adopt a standard limiting the degree to which an election district can stray from its most compact geographic option. That standard would say nothing about how the resulting districts would affect partisan splits in a congressional delegation.

Why turn to Congress to take action? The Supreme Court reminded us in Rucho that the U.S. Constitution’s framers wanted to leave details of elections to state officials, with the federal legislative branch playing an oversight role.

Blahous also favors congressional action because he places little faith in independent commissions. Academic research offers minimal support for the argument that those commissions draw election maps with less gerrymandering, he said. “If the goal is a stable, enduring solution to gerrymandering, a straightforward modification of federal law offers a much more promising approach than the disparate results of various commissions established in different states around the country.”

It’s worth noting that the new research focuses on congressional districts and the U.S. Constitution. The Common Cause v. Lewis lawsuit before a three-judge state panel this week deals instead with N.C. House and Senate districts. Plaintiffs contend that legislators drew election maps using partisan gerrymandering that violates the N.C. Constitution. Legislative leaders dispute that constitutional claim.

As for future political and legal fights over congressional maps, Blahaus believes his proposal could have a positive impact. “Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I think it would help create a bit of a truce on the issue,” he said. “I think what’s happening now is that people who feel they are being gerrymandered against are raising challenges in the courts. By framing the issue in partisan terms, it naturally draws resistance from the other side.”

“Both sides in the issue really have a stake in a neutral, rules-based reform,” Blahaus added. “It constrains the amount of gaming or gimmicking that the mapmakers would do.”

“But if you’re in the majority, I would think you would want this as well,” he said. “It basically protects you from second-guessing by the courts. It also protects the perceived legitimacy of your decisions while governing.”

Courts have spent decades second-guessing N.C. legislative mapmaking — whether Democrats or Republicans drafted the maps. More than any other state, perhaps, North Carolina should value a reform that keeps its electoral districts out of court.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Cooper’s Medicaid demand won’t work

Mon, 2019-07-15 01:01

Gov. Roy Cooper says he won’t sign a new state budget unless the North Carolina General Assembly says yes to Medicaid expansion. The Republican-majority legislature has said no to Medicaid expansion. So far, now weeks into the new fiscal year, neither side has budged.

Sure, there are other contested issues. Cooper wants a much-higher increase in government expenditures — in addition, that is, to the $6 billion his Medicaid expansion would add to the biennial budget, financed by a combination of federal borrowing, assessments on medical providers, and cost-shifting. He and GOP lawmakers also disagree on state debt, business taxation, and whether teacher pay should be tied more to effectiveness than to credentials.

But these are mostly matters of degree, not of kind. Both sides favor additional state expenditure on school construction. Both favor tax relief for business (Republicans prefer across-the-board rate reductions, Cooper prefers targeted tax breaks for selected companies). Both favor higher pay for teachers. They disagree on particulars, and on overall spending totals.

The issue of Medicaid expansion is fundamentally different, however. Most Republican lawmakers are conservatives. Most conservatives oppose the Medicaid expansion as a matter of principle, not just as a matter of fiscal prudence. They don’t think the welfare state should get larger, making more people dependent on government handouts and moving our government further away from its limited, constitutional role in a free society.

Conservatives have other objections, too. When it comes to the promise of perpetual federal funding at 90 percent of the cost of covering the new enrollees, for example, they smell a rat — as well they should.

It is highly unlikely that future presidents and congresses will see it as rational to pay states 90 cents on the dollar for mostly healthy people without dependents while paying only 67 cents on the dollar (in the case of North Carolina) for needier recipients such as the elderly, the disabled, and poor children. It is likely that, in the not-too-distant future, Washington will align these funding ratios with common sense and fiscal reality. Expansion states — that is, those with a larger share of childless, non-disabled recipients in their Medicaid population — will be net losers in the deal.

But even if Washington’s fiscal promises were ironclad, and progressives weren’t planning to undermine or repeal any work requirements or premiums that might be included in an expansion bill in North Carolina, most conservatives would still oppose a larger Medicaid program.

Some oppose any government role in health care. That’s a small number, however. As a practical matter, if not a constitutional one, most accept Medicare, Medicaid, and tax breaks for private health plans as core elements of America’s financing system for medical services. They see Medicare as essentially prepaid elder care, not as welfare. They see tax exemptions for non-wage benefits as inadvisable but deeply embedded aspects of in the markets for labor and for insurance.

And they accept Medicaid as a safety net. But they want to limit the scope of that safety net. Most to be added to the rolls by Medicaid expansion would have no disabilities, no infirmities, and no dependents. The GOP House members who devised their own version of Medicaid expansion admit that of the estimated 500,000 North Carolinians who’d enroll, some 200,000 are already covered by private plans!

These enrollees would be welfare recipients, possibly for the first time in their lives. That prospect appalls conservatives.

So, no, opposition to Medicaid expansion isn’t a partisan game. It isn’t a consequence of blind fury about Barack Obama and everything associated with him. Arguments like that are worse than useless. They don’t just fail. They poison the conversation. Conservatives believe the welfare state is too large already and don’t want to enlarge it. They prefer to focus on the cost side, by eliminating policies that inhibit competition and raise health costs unnecessarily.

Asking them to abandon this core principle in the midst of budget negotiations was unwise and, as has become obvious, highly unproductive.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Medicaid expansion and job creation: Bad economics, good special interest politics

Fri, 2019-07-12 01:59

In December 2018, I wrote the following: “As a general rule, the public and politicians should never view economic impact studies as anything more than an attempt by special interests to manipulate public opinion for their own benefit.” There is no better example of this than the study underwritten by the Cone Health Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust that contends that Medicaid expansion in North Carolina would “create” more than 37,000 jobs by 2022. This is an updated version of the original study published in 2014.

Because I have written extensively about the fundamental flaws in similar economic impact studies, I will not review all of those arguments in this space. But there is one conclusion of those analyses that needs special emphasis. It is what I have referred to as “the dirty little secret” of economic impact studies: they are designed to give one kind of result — positive. As I have argued, the “possibility that a subsidy … can generate negative results for the economy, i.e., lose jobs, reduce incomes, or shrink GDP, is ruled out. …” The Cone Reynolds study is no exception. And while the authors of the study claim to refute my arguments (see pp. 8-9), nowhere do they dispute this conclusion. In fact, by invoking what I call the “manna from heaven” argument, discussed below, they implicitly acknowledge it.

The reason I make this claim is that in this study the opportunity costs associated with actual resource usage instigated by the new spending on Medicaid are ignored. For example, when, as a result of the new Medicaid spending, more doctors, nurses, construction workers to build hospitals, janitors, orderlies, etc. are hired, it is implicitly assumed that they would otherwise be unemployed not contributing to economic growth in the state. In other words, there are no job or GDP losses, negative impacts, that have to be subtracted from the positive gains. The authors claim is that so long as all of the spending being considered comes from Washington, there are no opportunity costs, i.e. negative impacts, to be considered.

When asked about this issue in a recent email from the John Locke Foundation, a representative from Regional Economic Modeling Inc., the impact model used in the Cone/Reynolds study, acknowledged that in their model, “increasing government spending (as if it were manna from heaven) will not have a negative impact.” This (false) “manna from heaven” argument matches precisely the claim made by the authors of the Cone/Reynolds study. According to the authors, because federal money is funding 90 percent of the expansion, and it is only this “manna from heaven” that their study focuses on, there are no opportunity costs to the new spending. Their argument rests on the false claim that they would only need to consider opportunity costs if the money flows being analyzed were coming from inside North Carolina, i.e. through higher taxes or as a diversion from other state spending. According to the authors, “our methodology addresses this [opportunity cost] problem by being based entirely on the net federal funds that will flow into the state solely due to Medicaid expansion; we exclude the use of state funds which might be used for other purposes. The additional federal matching funds derive from external sources and would not flow into North Carolina if there was no Medicaid expansion,” i.e. it is manna from heaven. They ignore the reality that the actual resources — land, labor, and capital — being used when the “free money” is spent are not manna and do not come from heaven on the Potomac. They are scarce and would be used elsewhere if they weren’t being bid away from other local businesses and entrepreneurs by the Fed generated Medicaid spending. This is particularly the case in a state such as North Carolina, where the unemployment rate is below 4% and the economy is fully employed.

The problems with the study are compounded well beyond these errors in economic thinking. Both the Cone Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust are strong advocates for Medicaid expansion. The Cone Foundation describes itself as the supporting organization of Cone Health, which is a network of hospitals and other health-care providers in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. According to Gov. Roy Cooper, state Medicaid expansion would require a combination of federal and state taxpayers to foot the bill to cover an additional 500,000 North Carolinians. It also could significantly expand Cone’s customer base and would certainly increase its revenue. Medicaid expansion would, indeed, mean a wealth transfer from local entrepreneurs and state and federal taxpayers to health-care providers like Cone Health. Since the Cone Foundation receives its funding from Cone Health (and most of its board is appointed by Cone Health) the Cone Foundation benefits when Cone Health does. As the foundation states on its website, “Cone Health Foundation’s … advocacy strategy is closely aligned with that of Cone Health.”

The Reynolds Charitable Trust appears to be more ideologically motivated. On the philanthropy’s web site, they note their “strategy is to achieve strategic goals that support equitable access to opportunity and effect systems change.” If nothing else, Medicaid expansion is meant to bring about “systems change.” The president of the trust is a member of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, which recently sent a letter to the General Assembly “calling on them to support Medicaid Expansion.”

The fact is that neither of the funders of this study can be seen as “truth seekers” that are simply trying to provide objective analysis to the public. Both are pursuing a pro-Medicaid expansion agenda.

Furthermore, the Cone/Reynolds study is not only funded by special interests, but it’s lead author, a professor from George Washington University’s Center for Health Policy Research, describes himself as a researcher, a public policy analyst, and an “advocate” whose “career has been built around the effort to … improve access to affordable health care for vulnerable populations.” And despite the fact that the title of the study is “The Economic and Employment Benefits of Expanding Medicaid in North Carolina,” neither the lead author nor his two co-authors from GWU list any degrees in economics.

Note also that the title quite honestly acknowledges there will be no discussion of the costs of Medicaid expansion, only the benefits. This speaks volumes. The analysis doesn’t even pretend to be weighing the economic pros and cons of Medicaid expansion, only the pros. If the funders were truly interested in unbiased analysis, they could have gone to any of the major research institutions in North Carolina, all of which have world-class economics departments, to find truly qualified economists to perform a real cost/benefit analysis, instead of funding a “study” that focuses strictly on the benefits.

In assessing the economic effects of Medicaid expansion, the people of North Carolina are presented with a study funded by two special interest advocacy groups, written by three authors with no credentials in economics, and a lead author describing himself as an “advocate.” Furthermore, the study is using an economic model designed to never show job or GDP losses. Those who use this as a basis for claiming that Medicaid expansion will create nearly 40,000 jobs in the state may also be interested in a bridge that I have for sale.

Dr. Roy Cordato, longtime resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation, is editor of the academic journal Political Economy in the Carolinas.

Categories: Public Policy

SCIF scuffle highlights different priorities for taxes, spending

Thu, 2019-07-11 04:02

When defending their pay-as-you-go statewide school construction plan, Republican legislators sometimes appear perplexed. Why don’t their critics like a plan that promises to devote more money to buildings, with cash available more quickly, and at a lower overall cost than a bond package?

There’s a relatively simple answer. It focuses more on tax rates and government spending than details of school construction needs.

Most Republican legislators have adopted an unwavering opposition to raising tax rates. They have chipped away at personal and corporate income tax rates substantially since 2013. Even in years when they have not lopped off a portion of the tax rate, they have removed income from taxation by raising the zero tax bracket.

It should surprise no one, then, that Republican lawmakers looking to devote roughly $2 billion to school construction would seek an option that’s least likely to lead to a future tax increase. Some see a statewide bond referendum as a viable option. Others view the additional debt tied to a bond as a significant threat to future tax rates.

In contrast, most Democratic critics maintain no fundamental devotion to preserving or lowering existing tax rates. Instead they focus on the importance of maintaining or increasing current levels of government spending. They often describe their goal as increased “investment” in state priorities.

Some, but not all, advocate higher tax rates today. However they view current rates, they are less likely than Republican colleagues to fear a future of mounting government costs, including higher debt obligations. When forced to decide between raising tax rates and cutting government costs — reducing investments, in their words — their choice is easy.

When assessing options for state subsidies of local school construction, they are more likely to prefer the option that builds on existing state spending levels. A bond package fits with that mind-set.

The competing views about taxes and spending surfaced during last year’s debate over a state constitutional amendment. It was designed to reduce an existing cap on state income tax rates. Voters had the chance to drop the cap from 10% to 7%. With an existing personal rate of 5.25% and a corporate rate set to fall to 2.5%, the amendment had absolutely no impact on the existing tax structure. Still, it generated plenty of debate.

Some fiscal hawks grumbled. Their original proposed amendment would have lowered the cap to 5.5%, virtually guaranteeing no future personal income tax hike. A gap of 0.25 percentage points between the current and maximum rate is about as close to shutting the door on future tax hikes as the state is likely to see.

Instead the GOP legislative caucus compromised on a 7% rate cap. That new maximum rate would permit a future General Assembly to raise the personal income tax rate by 33% and the corporate rate by 280%.

Even with that amount of leeway, most Democratic lawmakers objected. They didn’t want to lower the rate cap at all. They complained that a lower cap would limit the General Assembly’s options in a future time of crisis. Without saying so directly, the amendment’s critics essentially argued that North Carolina would need one day to raise income tax rates higher than 7%.

An advocate of low, stable tax rates never would consider that option. It makes sense only to those who prioritize government spending over keeping tax rates in check.

This brings us back to the legislature’s pay-as-you-go plan for school construction. It’s based on the relatively new State Capital Infrastructure Fund. That fund gets 4% of state tax revenue, plus one-fourth of any unreserved money left over from the prior year’s budget. Lawmakers also can choose to devote more money to SCIF beyond those minimum requirements.

Republican legislative leaders want to use SCIF instead of a bond to fund the state’s portion of a projected multibillion-dollar school construction bill. More than half of the $1.3 billion now available to SCIF pays for debt service on existing state bonds. But a growing percentage of SCIF proceeds can cover new construction in future years as the state retires its debt. The compromise state budget deal spells out a multiyear SCIF-funded construction plan.

By the time money connected to a November 2020 bond vote would be available for use, SCIF already would have funded four years of K-12 and community college projects. The amount of money available would top $600 million for public schools alone.

Not only is money available more quickly through SCIF. Supporters say the total amount of funds available for school construction would be higher. Plus the state could avoid $1 billion or more in interest payments tied to a bond.

It sounds like a win for everyone concerned — unless you focus on the other items that 4% of state tax revenue could be funding today.

In the eyes of Gov. Roy Cooper and many of his Democratic colleagues, SCIF raids or robs the current budget. It diverts money from other “investments” to pay for construction projects that ought to be funded instead through new debt.

Rather than dedicate 4% of existing state tax proceeds to high-priority construction projects, critics want to keep that money flowing to lower-priority items. At the same time, they believe the state should take out new loans to permit additional spending for the new construction. If increased spending ends up outpacing revenue in future years, there’s no problem. The state can raise tax rates. For the children, of course.

That idea will appeal to few fiscal hawks. But it does align well with the views of those who prioritize government spending over keeping tax rates low.

As Republican lawmakers recognize the fundamentally different approach most Democratic colleagues take toward taxes and spending, the SCIF scuffle will start to make more sense.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Context needed on school spending

Wed, 2019-07-10 01:01

The average salary of a public schoolteacher in North Carolina was about $54,000 last year, up 20 percent since 2014. That was one of the largest increases in the nation. According to the latest data from the country’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, our state’s average pay ranked 29th. Adjusted for cost of living, North Carolina ranked 20th.

These statements aren’t inconsistent with the propositions that North Carolina ought to spend more money on teachers, that North Carolina ought to spend more on education in general, or that the GOP-led General Assembly should have raised teacher pay even faster over the past five years than they did.

In other words, these facts don’t “speak for themselves.” Facts never do.

Because education is the largest category of state expenditure, the largest state enterprise in North Carolina, and integral to the values and aspirations of most North Carolinians, it has long dominated the political conversation. That won’t change. But perhaps, if we try hard enough, we can improve the quality of the conversation.

Consider the question of “average teacher pay.” Frustrated by how Republican lawmakers touted the latest NEA ranking, Democrats and progressives have argued that the statistic was misleading. Some of their points were silly and risible (of course lots of teachers make less than the average, except perhaps in the Lake Wobegone School District).

But another question critics asked was more reasonable. Do teachers really comparison-shop across the country to decide where to teach? Some may do so, especially right out of college or if they reside near a state border. But most teachers don’t. They compare the compensation they’ll make teaching in their state’s public schools to the compensation they’ll make doing something else (including the difference in working days per year). Or they move to a state for a different reason, such as accompanying a spouse, and then get teaching jobs.

Speaking of that term “compensation,” workers aren’t just paid with cash. They often place a high value on non-wage benefits. States differ in what they offer teachers as well as how credible those offers are in the long run — that is, how solvent their pension and health plans are. Without adjusting for benefits, we can’t really say how states rank in average teacher compensation.

Another consideration is average age. While North Carolina has moved away from rigidly basing pay scales on years of experience, thank goodness, there will always be somewhat of a relationship, just as there is in many other careers.

When school systems hire more teachers, either to keep up with enrollment growth or intentionally to reduce class sizes, the new hires are usually on the lower end of the scale. All other things being equal, that will tend to reduce average salaries even if no teacher makes less than before.

Mike Petrilli reported an interesting finding in a recent edition of the journal Education Next, where he is executive editor. Petrilli looked at changes in K-12 enrollment and per-pupil spending from 2000 to 2015. While there certainly were some outliers, in general the states with the fastest growth in student populations had the lowest growth in per-pupil expenditure.

Part of the explanation is that in places where enrollments are stagnant or declining, policymakers don’t precipitously lay off teachers or close schools. They maintain funding levels. Per-pupil expenditure rises. At the same time, when enrollments surge, states scramble to keep up — and typically prioritize hiring teachers over enhancing compensation. They spend lots more money but the increase per pupil isn’t as large.

I am persuaded by the evidence that policymakers should instead let the pupil-teacher ratio rise and boost salaries, particularly for the highest-performing teachers. The effects on student performance would likely be greater. Although it may be popular, class-size reduction is usually not the most cost-effective approach.

If we are ever to make the best use of resources devoted to education, we need to find a better, less accusatory way to talk about school spending.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Paying for schools faster, cheaper, better

Tue, 2019-07-09 04:00

Imagine if you could buy a home with no debt. Wouldn’t you do that? State government has the option to do something similar with the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, but Gov. Roy Cooper prefers debt.

Both the legislature and the governor agree the state should spend $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion on public school facilities and $500 million or more for community college and university facilities. They differ over how to pay the bill. The General Assembly would provide money for these projects without taking on any new debt. As Daft Punk might sing, this approach would build them faster, cheaper, better than Cooper’s proposed school bond. The bond would add new state debt.

The key to avoiding new debt is the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, or SCIF, which receives 4 percent of state tax revenue, one-fourth of the previous fiscal year’s unreserved balance — available money not dedicated to any expense — and other money as directed by statute or the General Assembly. Debt service on existing bonds takes $721 million of the $1.3 billion available through the SCIF for the new fiscal year. The remainder pays for repairs and renovations of existing state facilities and new capital projects.

In future years, the SCIF’s mix of debt service and new projects would change.

The budget bill approved by lawmakers and vetoed by Cooper provides the capital spending plan for the next six years — through fiscal 2024-25. Legislators have plans for school and community college projects through fiscal 2029-30. As the state pays off its current debts, more money becomes available through the SCIF for new repairs, renovations, and construction.

Unlike a bond, the SCIF pays for construction now, not in the future when debt payments could compete with critical services in a recession. Unlike a slush fund, every dollar in the SCIF flows through the state treasury and is appropriated by the General Assembly as part of the budget.

The SCIF provides money for school construction sooner than a bond. A November 2020 vote would mean the first bonds would be sold in fiscal 2022-23. Office of State Budget and Management projections suggest $270 million would be available for school construction that year. SCIF appropriations by that point would have exceeded $600 million for K-12 schools and $120 million for community colleges, with four years’ worth of projects already under way.

No borrowing means no interest payments, which combined with diversion from operations reduces the chance of a future tax increase. With bonds, debt service would continue at 3.5 percent or more of General Fund revenue, leaving it unavailable for operations or other needs. When the economy slows, the combination of lower tax revenues and higher demands for revenue to cover debt service makes a tax increase more likely. This combination would also limit the state’s ability to borrow and force a delay in bond sales, pushing off new projects until the state can again borrow.

Paying for projects with available cash means the state can reduce its payments to debt service and, if capital needs are being met, use the extra funds to pay down unfunded obligations for pensions and retiree health benefits. This is important for a state that has an estimated unfunded obligation of $35 billion to $40 billion. With no debt, voters and legislators could decide between government services and tax cuts with a degree of freedom not available for policy decisions in other states. That depends on wise choices today.

Cooper already has demonstrated that he would spend one-time money on recurring expenses. As his school bond proposal shows, he would borrow money to make one-time capital expenses recurring debt payments into the future. We may still question the need for state spending on K-12 schools, but the governor and legislature agree it’s a good idea. The SCIF is the best way for the state to play a significant role in paying for local school construction needs, getting the projects started faster, with cheaper financing, and better financial controls in the future.

Categories: Public Policy

Redistricting should favor voters

Mon, 2019-07-08 01:01

North Carolina Democrats held the General Assembly after the 2000 elections, as they had for nearly all of the state’s history. During the ensuing 2001 session, top lawmakers, Democratic consultants, and progressive activists devised a set of gerrymanders that would have guaranteed Democratic control of both legislative chambers for years to come, even if most North Carolinians voted for GOP candidates.

The 2001 gerrymanders were an appalling abuse of power — but redistricting abuses already had a long pedigree in North Carolina. Indeed, a favorable map had helped Democrats win the N.C. House in 2000 despite being outpolled by Republicans statewide. And key redistricting cases such as Thornburg v. Gingles and Shaw v. Reno originated in our state.

You can see the effects of earlier gerrymandering just by looking at a map of North Carolina. Centuries ago, when legislative seats were apportioned by county rather than by population, the then-dominant politicians of Northeastern North Carolina maximized the number of counties along the coast while only grudgingly dividing the massive counties of the Piedmont and West into smaller jurisdictions.

After the 2001 gerrymanders came to light, Republicans went to court. They argued that the new legislative maps violated specific provisions of the North Carolina constitution, including the requirement to respect county boundaries. The plaintiffs won the case, titled Stephenson v. Bartlett. Republicans cheered. Democrats fumed. And our legislative districts got a bit more rational and competitive.

But it was still possible, respecting the Stephenson decision, for the party in power to draw favorable electoral maps. As the 2010 elections approached, Democrats should have adopted redistricting reform as a precaution against Republican victory and subsequent line-drawing. They didn’t, to their political detriment.

Now, as we near the 2020 election cycle, the partisan roles are reversed. Republicans have majorities in the General Assembly. Democrats have gone to court repeatedly to challenge GOP-drawn maps, often successfully. But in the just-decided case Rucho v. Common Cause, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 not to strike down North Carolina’s congressional districts as an unconstitutional exercise in partisan gerrymandering.

Many Democrats and progressives were hanging their hopes on judicial intervention. They shouldn’t have. The earlier Gingles, Shaw, and Stephenson cases alleged explicit violations of explicit statutory or constitutional provisions. But in Rucho, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to devise and apply general standards based on general constitutional language. It was a bridge too far.

Two key questions remain unanswered, however. What will North Carolina courts do in a new case challenging legislative districts on state constitutional grounds? And which party will prevail in the pivotal 2020 elections?

Republicans should see what happened to the previous Democratic majority as a cautionary tale. If the Democrats of 2009-10 had advanced reform themselves, in particular by submitting for voter approval a constitutional amendment governing the redistricting process, that would have placed constraints on what Republican line-drawers could have done in 2011. Of course, Democrats didn’t think they’d lose the 2010 elections. Politicians are often overconfident.

Moreover, lawmakers and voters of all affiliations should recognize that North Carolina need not and should not be the site of a disproportionate amount of the nation’s redistricting cases. Litigation is costly, tiring, and divisive.

Now that the federal judiciary has removed itself from the partisan-gerrymander field, it’s time for other remedies. The nonprofit North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, for which I serve as a board member, has offered the FAIR Act as a solution. It would amend the state constitution to place firm limits on gerrymandering while also enacting, by statute, a process for drawing maps based on transparency and fairness.

There’s no perfect way to draw electoral districts. But surely we can do better than the current system and the incessant political and legal strife it produces. The rules should be clear. They should restore voters as the ultimate sovereign. And as much as possible, they should be placed directly in the constitution. Let’s not do another decade of this. Let’s do something else.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

17 things in conference budget that protect and promote freedom 

Thu, 2019-07-04 04:00

There will be parades, speeches, picnics, and gatherings across North Carolina this month to celebrate freedom. The General Assembly will be wrapping up its work, at least for the meantime, this month. In many of the public policy debates this session, it seems to me freedom is in peril. We saw it in the budget debate with the governor and others, who are insisting more government spending and control is better, even necessary, they argue. But it quickly becomes apparent nothing would be enough.  

Is freedom in danger in North Carolina? As I looked at the conference budget the General Assembly passed in late June — with bi-partisan support by the way — I found many reasons to celebrate. In addition to passing a fiscally responsible, restrained and disciplined spending plan, lawmakers preserved and promoted freedom. I’m calling it the Freedom Budget. Here are 17 examples I found:  

  1. By restraining spending growth to an average of 3.5% over the two-year budget (within the growth of population and inflation) North Carolinians get to keep more of their money and enjoy the freedom to spend it as they wish. 
  2. Putting $710 million into the savings reserve account and building the state’s rainy-day fund back up to $1.96 billion by 2021 ensures help when we need it most — during a natural disaster or to get us through an economic downturn, as well as providing peace of mind and freedom from worry. 
  3. North Carolina has a long history of supporting education, understanding that gaining skills to work and having a job is the path to happiness, fulfillment, the way out of poverty and the key to independence and freedom from government dependency. This budget allocates $14 billion to public education, the highest amount ever.  
  4. Legislative leaders promise to spend $1.9 billion for K-12 and community college construction needs using a cash pay-as-you-go plan, frees up debt capacity, and frees up North Carolinians from excessive debt in the future.  
  5. Businesses are freed from excessive taxation with reductions in the franchise tax, enabling them to invest more in creating jobs and growing their businesses.  
  6. Low-income families now have freedom to keep more of their money with additions to the zero-tax bracket.  
  7. Being saddled with college loan debt upon graduation can be overwhelming. The General Assembly decided several years ago to free students from that debt and implemented the N.C. Promise program, offering $500 tuition at three UNC Institutions. This budget provides additional funding and flexibility for the increase in financial obligations for N.C. Promise Institutions, making college available to more students, and it’s practically free.  
  8. Financial illiteracy leads to bad decisions that impede freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. This budget adds an Economics and Personal Finance course as a high school graduation requirement. 
  9. Teachers are free to spend a classroom-supplies allotment that goes directly to them. Eligible teachers will get $150 the first year; $200 per teacher the second year. 
  10. This budget consolidates a couple current programs into the N.C. Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities, giving parents better options, more flexibility, and the freedom to best meet their child’s educational needs. 
  11. More than 4,000 additional N.C. seniors are granted the freedom to stay in their homes because of increased funding for Home and Community Care Block Grants.  
  12. Loan repayment incentives will make it possible for doctors, physicians’ assistants, dentists, nurse practitioners, and certified nurse midwifes the freedom to practice and provide greater access to quality health care to rural communities. It allows folks the freedom to choose rural areas to live because of greater access to quality health care.  
  13. This budget wisely takes $32.5 million out of the foolish Film Grant program, which frees up that money for a better use in clean water management and parks and recreation funds. 
  14. Putting money into tourism, historic sites, state parks, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. History Museum, Fort Fisher, and the N.C. Museum of Art provides a wealth of opportunities for people across North Carolina.  
  15. Dedicating funds to implement the new Voter ID requirement protects the integrity of free elections. 
  16. Investing $3.9 billion in transportation and infrastructure projects, including road maintenance, airports, rail, public transportation and ports ensures goods, services and people move around and through the state safely, efficiently and freely.  
  17. Only when we’re safe are we free, and significant investments in cybersecurity, national guard equipment, prison security, testing sexual assault evidence kits, the state crime lab, and court personnel, protect public safety. 

Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation. 

Categories: Public Policy

Our revolution needs constant care

Wed, 2019-07-03 01:01

When we commemorate the birthday of the United States of America, we don’t just celebrate a place, a set of governmental institutions, and a shared history that binds together people with differing backgrounds, faiths, and aspirations. We celebrate a revolutionary act.

As John Adams put it in an 1818 letter, the war that secured America’s independence was an effect, not a cause, of the American Revolution. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people,” he wrote.

During the turmoil of the 1760s and early 1770s, Americans began to discard the pseudo-religious concept that God had ordained kings and queens to rule over them. They also discarded the secular “habitual sentiments of allegiance and loyalty” that bound them to the crown, viewing the king’s trespasses against their liberty to have dissolved their reciprocal obligations to him.

These were revolutionary concepts in the 18th century. Indeed, America remains a revolutionary society today. But that need not make it unstable, unwieldy, or unattached to tradition. Our revolution of the mind didn’t reject the facts of human nature, the constraints of human life, or the intricacies and responsibilities of human community. It was fundamentally different than the subsequent Continental revolutions that produced guillotines and gas chambers.

Our revolutionary principle — inconsistently applied at first, imperfectly practiced today — was that all human beings are created equal in the eyes of God and the laws of man. It never meant that all human beings were, or could ever be, equal in all respects. It meant only that each of us has the natural right to liberty.

That is, we all enjoy the right to decide what we will do, with whom, to what end, as long as our actions don’t encroach on others’ right to do the same. And it means that when the latter proviso applies — when collective, coercive action is necessary — we all get a say in how such governmental power is exercised by expressing our views and casting our ballots.

Few human societies before 1776 exalted the principle of equal liberty above the interests of powerful monarchs and cabals. More have done so since, however imperfectly, with the delightful result that humanity is happier, healthier, wealthier, and freer than ever before in the history of our species. That’s a revolution worth celebrating.

It could easily have failed. As Adams explained in his letter, the North American colonies “had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise.”

That’s what makes the events of 1776 so momentous. “The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind,” Adams said. “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”

Alas, just as there were no guarantees the American Revolution would succeed more than two centuries ago, there are no guarantees of its continued success. Our governmental institutions were designed to check and balance power, to limit its excesses, to protect our freedom against foes foreign and domestic — including our own foibles and temptations. They’ve worked fairly well. But they don’t work seamlessly. Clocks that strike together at first will, over time, get out of sync.

The framers of North Carolina’s constitution understood well that the system isn’t fully self-regulating. In Article I, Section 35, it states, “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.” Each of us has a role to play in winding, adjusting, and repairing the clockwork of constitutional government. It’s the gift we should all give our country on its birthday.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

State judges can consider Rucho ruling’s impact

Tue, 2019-07-02 04:02

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in North Carolina’s high-profile partisan gerrymandering case offered an excellent lesson about the limits of judicial power. It’s a lesson that should come in handy soon for state judges.

They will have to address similar arguments in a case scheduled to head to trial this month.

A three-judge state Superior Court panel hearing Common Cause v. Lewis convenes today in Raleigh. Plaintiffs challenge N.C. House and Senate election maps. They contend that Republican legislators used an overly partisan process when drawing those maps.

Today’s hearing addresses procedural issues. The full case is slated for trial July 15.

Before focusing on the potential impact of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, it’s worth noting the wisdom of the three-judge panel’s scheduling decisions.

Left-of-center activist group Common Cause and the N.C. Democratic Party filed suit against the legislative election maps last Nov. 13, exactly one week after the 2018 general election. While no one expected an immediate trial, it’s likely that the competing parties could have prepared for a courtroom battle earlier this year.

Instead, state judges decided to wait. They learned Jan. 2 that a federal judge would not transfer Common Cause v. Lewis to the federal court system. Two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its plan to hear arguments in March in a separate partisan gerrymandering case involving N.C. congressional districts. The high court’s Jan. 4 announcement almost certainly guaranteed a federal court ruling on the partisan gerrymandering issue by the end of June.

Armed with that information, state judges decided on Feb. 1 to give plaintiffs and defendants more than five months to prepare for this summer’s courtroom showdown. A July 15 trial date was guaranteed to give all parties — including the judges — more than two weeks to process the results of the federal case.

The three-judge panel did not need to wait for guidance from the nation’s highest court. Unlike the case that headed to Washington, Common Cause v. Lewis challenges election maps under provisions of the state Constitution. The map’s critics could argue that a federal ruling should have a limited impact on state court action.

That’s true. But both federal and state courts must wrestle with a common challenge: resolving the judicial branch’s proper role in determining just how much partisanship is “too much” when lawmakers draw election maps.

It’s not an easy issue. Judges decide legal disputes. They’re not supposed to pick winners and losers in partisan political battles.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in the federal case, Rucho v. Common Cause, set a clear standard for federal judges’ role — none — in future partisan gerrymandering cases. Recognizing that North Carolina’s congressional election map is “highly partisan, by any measure,” Roberts nonetheless concluded for a 5-4 Supreme Court majority that judges cannot translate that high degree of partisanship into a clearly defined constitutional violation.

Trying to determine “fair” election districts involves “political, not legal” questions. “Federal courts are not equipped to apportion political power as a matter of fairness, nor is there any basis for concluding that they were authorized to do so,” the chief justice wrote.

“There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments, let alone limited and precise standards that are clear, manageable, and politically neutral,” Roberts wrote.

Critics of the N.C. election maps and the Supreme Court’s four dissenting justices seek “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power,” the chief justice adds. “We have never struck down a partisan gerrymander as unconstitutional — despite various requests over the past 45 years. The expansion of judicial authority would not be into just any area of controversy, but into one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life.”

Roberts and his colleagues reject that proposed expansion of judicial authority. While their decision sends a clear message to federal judges, the potential impact for state courts remains less certain.

“Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering,” Roberts writes. The chief justice then sets out ways Congress or the states can address the issue without federal judicial meddling.

He references independent mapmaking methods. (North Carolina has multiple options for taking that route.) Roberts also cites action from state courts, including the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a congressional election map in 2015.

The Florida case relied on a specific Fair Districts Amendment in that state’s constitution. Roberts writes that other states might have laws or constitutions with provisions that provide “standards and guidance for state courts to apply.”

Legislative leaders say N.C. courts already have set precedents on partisan mapmaking. Lawmakers contend those precedents bolster their legal case. “The N.C. Supreme Court has already ruled on considering politics after other criteria, writing that ‘the General Assembly may consider partisan advantage and incumbency protection in the application of discretionary redistricting decisions,’” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, in a prepared statement issued shortly after Roberts’ decision.

It’s unclear whether the three-judge panel in Common Cause v. Lewis will agree. It might endorse instead the view expressed in Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent in the federal case. She wrote that Roberts and the court majority “goes tragically wrong” in washing its hands of partisan gerrymandering. The disputed maps “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people,” Kagan wrote.

But if the state three-judge panel concludes that some degree of partisanship in N.C. election mapmaking is “too much,” it must employ a clear legal standard. Otherwise, judges will be playing politics rather than settling law.

Having given themselves time to consider the opinion of the highest court in the land, state judges ought to keep Roberts’ concluding words in mind.

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” the chief justice wrote, quoting the landmark 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison. “In this rare circumstance, that means our duty is to say ‘this is not law.’”

Absent a clear legal standard based on the N.C. Constitution, state-level judges would face the same duty when addressing partisan gerrymandering. Rather than choose sides in a partisan fight, they could say “this is not law.”

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Community colleges deliver great value

Mon, 2019-07-01 01:01

Many political and education leaders in North Carolina say that our economy would be better off if our level of educational attainment was higher. They’re probably right about that, as long as their definition of “educational attainment” is sufficiently broad.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 30 percent of North Carolinians aged 25 and over have bachelor or graduate degrees. That’s up from 23 percent in 2000. Another nine percent or so have two-year associate degrees, up from seven percent in 2000.

Did all of the remaining three-fifths of North Carolina’s 25-plus population make it no further than high school? Not at all. Some 22 percent attended college for a while but never finished their programs. If state policymakers are worried about insufficient attainment, the experience of this “some college” population deserves closer scrutiny.

Education is, among other things, an investment in human capital. To the extent you obtain useful knowledge and skills, the value of your work rises. To the extent other people obtain useful knowledge and skills, you can benefit, too, as co-workers or as purchasers of their goods and services.

Taxpayers can help finance the formation of both physical and human capital. But there are at least two critical differences between the two. One has to do with identity. Roads, bridges, and other infrastructure are fixed in place and can be owned and operated by governments (although they don’t have to be). But in a free society, human capital is always private and mobile.

The other big difference is that education is only partially an economic investment. It has multiple goals. One such goal can be to foster good citizenship. Future voters should possess basic knowledge about history, science, civics, and related fields.

This was Thomas Jefferson’s original justification for public education. “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves,” he wrote in a 1786 letter to George Washington, and even better that it be in the hands of “people with a certain degree of instruction.”

With regard to higher education, students sometimes take courses or even degrees for reasons other than maximizing future earnings. Some just enjoy learning. For others, they make a conscious choice to pursue a relatively low-paying career because they believe it will make them happier or serve some greater good.

I say all of that as a necessary preclude to this observation. If the goal of raising educational attainment is to enhance human capital, thus boosting incomes and living standards across North Carolina’s economy, then it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly on university campuses.

Of those 22 percent of North Carolina adults who consumed some higher education but don’t possess a degree, a significant percentage started out at a four-year institution when they should have gone to community college, instead. It would have cost less, they might well have been more successful by staying closer to home, and if they had completed associate degrees, they might well have been better off than if they’d completed B.A. or B.S. degrees.

Did that last assertion surprise you? I can back it up. Several recent studies have tracked income data for workers of varying educational backgrounds and careers over long periods of time. While on average those with at least bachelor’s degrees have higher lifetime earnings than those without them, the difference is largely attributable to undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). The lifetime incomes of those with bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts and humanities are not significantly higher than those with associate degrees.

By no means am I denigrating the study of liberal arts and humanities. Their value is more than pecuniary. But if we’re talking about labor-market returns, let’s make sure young people — and the not-so-young people who make education policy in North Carolina — don’t overlook the great potential of proximate, affordable community colleges.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

‘Politainment’ in the era of Trump 

Fri, 2019-06-28 04:00

Republicans are in a strong position. The party has the White House and Senate, and a majority on the Supreme Court. No sitting president has been denied a second term for more than 30 years. Despite a recent cool down, the economy is humming. Polls suggest partisans are buoyant. Sixty-nine percent believe the country’s “best days are ahead of us,” according to a recent Gallup poll. A survey from the same company earlier this year showed 89 percent of Republicans were “satisfied” with “the overall quality of life” in the U.S.  

It’s at times like these political parties should be planning for the future and using the luxury of governing to sharpen the expression of core values, hone ideas on important policies, cultivate bright minds, invest in a deep bench of talented candidates, and strengthen their institutions.   

Worryingly, the GOP is not doing much of this.   

The inaction is somewhat attributable to an internal tug-of-war over the party’s ideological direction. Behind the scenes, Donald Trump’s populism and the establishment’s traditional conservatism struggle for ascendency.  

Still, parties fight, and doctrinal squabbles are often the sign of a growing one. The GOP’s lack of forethought is more troubling. It doesn’t seem committed to the long game of American politics and the success that brings about significant and durable public policy.   

An ephemeral “cult of personality” often grips the party of the president. The Democrats’ were so star struck by Barack Obama they forwent a great deal of institution building. Trump takes it to another level, however. He’s disinterested in anything but personal success in 2020.  His re–election campaign has subsumed the Republican National Committee in an unprecedented attempt to focus the party on returning him to office — at the expense of a broader strategy to win back the House and protect the Senate majority. The RNC is raising money at a historic clip, and Trump was willing to let it give to congressional candidates when he was not on the ballot in 2018. Now it’s everyman for himself, and the president has tight control of fundraising and disbursement.  

Trump has also fashioned a GOP coalition for the short term. It is whiter than it has ever been. It is older than it has been for decades. Most of its sub-groups are shrinking as a proportion of the American population. Demography is not destiny, but the current polarization and rigidity of our politics makes it difficult for parties and candidates to peel off groups of voters from the other side. The situation predates Trump, but he’s hardly the kind of leader who can broaden and diversify the Republican coalition under such conditions. 

Other Republican politicians don’t look to the horizon, either. Until recently, most Republican candidates, even at the federal level, had vocations outside of politics, particularly in business. They brought real-world knowledge and motivation to solve real-world problems.  Drawn to politics by ideas or commitment to service, they developed a deep affinity for a party that nurtured them. The spoils of electoral victory were the chance to make policy, a purposive effort to mold the country’s future in the shape of their experiences and aspirations. They cared for their political progeny, tending to candidates and ideas knowing the party’s — and indeed country’s — success depended upon their guardianship.   

Now, these spoils are distinctly personal. They are the office itself or, for the party’s middle tier, personal financial security for a few years — an appointment or secure flow of clients for a consulting or lobbying business.    

Today, a sizeable proportion of Republican office holders and activists are professional politicians with backgrounds as political aides, consultants, or in the media. They’re attracted to the field to make a living. Tribalism motivates them but they are, with livelihoods on the line, paradoxically for themselves. The goal has always been to defeat the other side. But, in the past, this followed electoral combat fought over ideas, not an obsession to see your opponent vanquished. And victory was marked by modesty; it was not an occasion for obnoxious celebration and juvenile name-calling.   

The party is also not the receptacle for intellectual ferment it once was. Think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Cato, and Heritage still churn out interesting stuff. Intelligent debate and analysis of conservative ideas still fill the pages of the National Review and other, deeper, publications like American Affairs and National Affairs, which, in some ways, are having a kind of renaissance. Committed conservative donors and foundations see the importance of investing in ideas. But this is demanding work with little immediate pay-off. It doesn’t seem to have much of a Republican audience in the era of Trump and ‘politainment;’ a time when its partisans mimic the words of a Sean Hannity rather than digest the thoughts of a Bill Buckley.   

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university. 





Categories: Public Policy

Lawmakers need little time to secure major property-rights protection

Thu, 2019-06-27 04:02

Momentous votes in the N.C. General Assembly usually involve lengthy debate, ideological splits, and occasional frayed tempers.

But none of those elements factored into one of the most important votes in recent memory involving property rights. With little discussion and no dissent, lawmakers voted to scrap the state’s three-decade-old Map Act.

Two months after the House voted 114-0 to repeal the act, the Senate followed suit, 41-0, on June 12. Floor debate in the Senate lasted less than two minutes. Just one senator spoke about the repeal. Her comments lasted roughly 25 seconds.

That outcome might not seem particularly shocking to those who have followed state legal proceedings. A unanimous N.C. Supreme Court had ruled against the N.C. Department of Transportation in 2016 in a case focusing on the Map Act.

DOT had used the act to tie up property throughout the path of a proposed Winston-Salem bypass. Property owners who had seen their homes sit in legal limbo for more than a decade sued the department. They won a clear victory.

The department had argued that the Map Act reflected state government’s police power. The Supreme Court disagreed. “The Map Act’s indefinite restraint on fundamental property rights is squarely outside the scope of the police power,” Justice Paul Newby wrote.

Government clearly has a police power. That power does not give DOT the right to use the Map Act to drive down highway construction costs. “Though the reduction in acquisition costs for highway development properties is a laudable public policy, economic savings are a far cry from the protections from injury contemplated under the police power,” Newby explained.

A proposed highway map had a clear negative impact for affected property owners. “By recording the corridor maps at issue here, which restricted plaintiffs’ rights to improve, develop, and subdivide their property for an indefinite period of time, NCDOT effectuated a taking of fundamental property rights,” Newby wrote.

Newby and his colleagues sent the case back to the trial court and ordered it to compensate property owners for the “takings.” The lower court “must determine the value of the loss of these fundamental rights by calculating the value of the land before the corridor map was recorded and the value of the land afterward.” The high court offered no short cuts, saying the calculation should take into account “all pertinent factors, including the restriction on each plaintiff’s fundamental rights.”

The resulting price tag has been hefty. During House debate over this year’s Map Act repeal bill, Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, told colleagues that DOT already had paid $230 million to resolve about one-third of the outstanding court cases. The total cost to taxpayers could top $600 million.

The 2016 N.C. Supreme Court ruling clearly pointed the way toward the Map Act’s ultimate demise. The high-profile case had painted an unflattering picture of a big, bad DOT trampling on the rights of hundreds of small property owners.

But a unanimous vote to repeal the act doesn’t end the story. DOT still needs to acquire property for future projects. One suspects that department leaders and legislators want to limit future property-rights problems. They especially want to avoid another unconstitutional state program that costs taxpayers a half-billion dollars in legal settlements.

The state will need to balance its need to acquire land with the “fundamental” property rights Newby described in 2016.

In a perfect world, DOT would find willing sellers throughout the path of any proposed road. In reality, the department is likely to have to engage in at least some “takings.” They will rely on government’s power of eminent domain.

As that process plays out, the Map Act case suggests some principles state road planners ought to keep in mind. First, realize that the value of a piece of property might decline as soon as it is designated officially for a road project. This is true with or without a Map Act. DOT ought to buy the land as early in the process as possible. If a quick purchase isn’t possible, the department should pay some equitable price for limiting the property’s use.

Second, both the department and the General Assembly should agree that government will not cut highway costs by pushing private property owners around. Lawmakers face a duty to taxpayers to spend their money wisely. No one wants to pay more than necessary to build a new road. But part of the necessary expense involves fair property acquisition. The state must make property owners whole when a project forces them out of their homes or off their land.

DOT appears to recognize the need for reform. The department has recommended that lawmakers replace the Map Act with a law restoring highway corridor maps. The new maps would not restrict uses of property within the corridor. Instead DOT would be notified of any proposed zoning, subdivision, or building-permit requests. Notification would give DOT a chance to try to buy the land before new development takes place.

“This seems like a reasonable way to move forward,” said Jon Guze, John Locke Foundation director of legal studies. “DOT would gather helpful information for its land acquisition process, without threatening private property rights.”

The Map Act didn’t occupy much time on this year’s legislative calendar. But its repeal should have a lasting impact on the state’s future approach to private property rights.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Stop posturing on immigration reform

Wed, 2019-06-26 01:01

Our immigration system is clearly broken. The consequences are evident on our borders, in our judicial system, and right here in North Carolina. Unfortunately, Gov. Roy Cooper, Democratic lawmakers, and progressive activists are making it more difficult to reach a consensus on reforming the system.

Their obstructions are both general and specific. For example, their frequent use of misleading euphemisms for illegal immigrants, such as “undocumented workers,” makes serious conversation impossible. Many illegal immigrants are not workers. Most have documents of some kind, including fraudulent ones.

As for a specific obstruction, consider the current dispute about sheriffs and detention orders. Both the North Carolina House and Senate have enacted versions of a bill that would require local law enforcement to detain suspects picked up for other crimes if federal officials believe they may be in the country illegally. Most Democrats oppose the idea and Cooper says he will veto it.

During the 2018 midterms, several candidates for sheriff in urban counties made cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement a campaign issue. They won, and declared they’d no longer honor detention requests from ICE. That’s why the General Assembly is responding with legislation.

Most of the state’s 100 sheriffs support the bill. But those recently elected urban sheriffs, all African-American Democrats, continue to oppose it. They make several arguments, of varying quality.

The worst one is that the Republican-majority legislature is targeting them because they’re black. This charge is ridiculous and dishonors anyone who utters or endorses it. The proper extent of local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement has been a contentious issue for many years. It long predates last fall’s election. Reckless allegations of racism poison the well and render constructive political discourse impossible.

A better objection is that sheriffs are constitutional officers in North Carolina and cannot be ordered around by state lawmakers. If they don’t want to comply with federal requests to help enforce immigration laws, the argument goes, they don’t have to — and lawmakers can’t make them.

It’s a better case — but still not a persuasive one. While the state constitution does recognize the elected office of sheriff, it doesn’t specify the duties and powers of the office. The same can be said for other constitutional offices such as labor commissioner and secretary of state. In the latter case, the General Assembly has enacted statutes over the years to assign them such duties and powers.

The office of sheriff is a bit different. With deep roots in English history, it predates North Carolina’s state constitution by centuries. Under common law, sheriffs act as the chief law-enforcement officers in their counties. So, doesn’t that mean they can decide not to cooperate with ICE to enforce immigration law?

Not really, no. The common-law powers of sheriffs don’t overrule statutes enacted by legislatures. North Carolina has already passed a law requiring local law enforcement, including sheriffs, to investigate the immigration status of suspects arrested for felonies or drunk driving. Another law states that no county “may have in effect any policy, ordinance, or procedure that limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.”

What state lawmakers are trying to do this year is to ensure that sheriffs comply with their legal responsibilities. Is holding a suspect pending an ICE investigation an unconstitutional act? Not according to a recent North Carolina Court of Appeals decision. Perhaps other judges will see it differently, but I hope not.

Here’s the bottom line: if we can’t all agree that illegal immigrants picked up for serious crimes can be detained and deported, reform is impossible. If you want to make it easier for people to come here legally to work while providing some kind of legal status to young people, the “Dreamers,” who were brought here illegally as children, you have to be open to strengthening border security and deporting illegal aliens who threaten public safety.

Let’s stop posturing and start working on a solution.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Helping craft distillers could have positive effect on how others view N.C.

Tue, 2019-06-25 04:00

People love lists, and certain niche websites thrive on them. Take these lists, of course, for what they are. 

What they are, in most cases, are random, subjective thoughts combined with compelling photos and short, sometimes funny narratives.

North Carolinians should love these lists, though, because they often praise our state in a host of categories — from our cities to our small towns to our beaches to our craft beer.

In a survey of millenials by, for instance, Raleigh ranked second — behind Boise, Idaho — among best places to live in the U.S. Thrilllist ranked North Carolina among the top 10 for best states for beer.

Oftentimes, the lists are based on facts and solid data.

For two consecutive years, Forbes ranked North Carolina as the best state for business. Forbes, again, recently ranked the Research Triangle Park as the country’s best place to rent, and our universities and their schools appear on myriad lists with the best in the country.

On it goes. 

Lawmakers and local officials and politicians surely read these same lists. Yet many of them continue to enact rules and laws contrary to our state’s progress and its desirability. Take, for example, Wilmington, which was forced to walk back a restrictive proposal regarding noise. Or Raleigh, which has enacted draconian rules for the booming private rental business.

North Carolina is beautifully unique, encapsulated by stunning mountain views in the west to a sprawling coastline in the east. 

Thriving cities and small towns throughout the state have reinvented themselves after the demise of textiles and tobacco. Places in North Carolina like Morganton, and Shallotte, which, despite the usual machinations involved with city approval, is home to a relatively new brewery that draws customers from the busy restaurants flanking it. Places like Mount Pleasant, where “Whiskey Prison” and 73 & Main are drawing foodies and bourbon aficionados alike.

A trip to Asheville in the west — or to Wilmington in the east — brings scenes of sparkling and bustling restaurants, wineries, and breweries, of which the state has more than 300. The brewery boom, by the way, is largely attributable to legislation in 2005 allowing brewers to raise a beer’s alcohol content well beyond 6%.

Why, then, do state and local politicians continue to stand in the way of undeniable — and seemingly unstoppable — progress, particularly when it comes to promoting a legal and thriving industry such as craft distilling?

North Carolina craft beer has an annual economic impact of more than $2 billion and, in turn, supports some 12,000 jobs, the Craft Brewers Guild says. The state’s 200 or so wineries have a similarly large impact.

Senate Bill 290, Distiller Regulatory Reform Bill, is making its way through the General Assembly, and it’s a pretty big deal for our state’s craft distillers.

The measure would allow N.C. distilleries to sell malt beverages and unfortified and fortified wine, as well to sell mixed beverages. It also would allow distilleries to sell spirits directly to consumers and would allow liquor tastings at state Alcoholic Beverage Control stores.

The bill, maybe most important, would allow distillers to, much like ABC stores, sell to consumers without facing the current five-bottle-per-person annual restriction, according to state and local laws.

Breweries and wineries bring people together while revitalizing towns and also driving the North Carolina economy. They’re places where families and couples gather, oftentimes with their dogs and children. They aren’t places where people gulp alcohol and get drunk. Rather, people gather to relish the sense of community and the art of the craft.

Craft distilleries could have the same vibrant atmosphere, if only lawmakers would allow it. Impeding innovation and frustrating entrepreneurs aren’t reasons North Carolina winds up among the best of this or at the top of that, and lawmakers would do well to keep this in mind, lest we find ourselves on some other, less desirable kind of list.



Categories: Public Policy

Medicaid gambit won’t boost Cooper

Mon, 2019-06-24 01:01

What do North Carolina voters think of the job Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has done over his first two and a half years in the office? The signals are mixed at the moment.

Our state is one of the most extensively polled in the country. Because our electorate is closely divided and our statewide races are highly competitive, parties, candidates, and independent-expenditure groups often commission surveys. These surveys don’t always stay private. Moreover, several universities and two other organizations, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling and the conservative Civitas Institute, produce regular North Carolina polls for public consumption.

Having lots of polling data does not necessarily ensure clarity, however. Consider the two latest surveys from PPP and Civitas. Both taken in June, they told different stories about Cooper’s approval. One depicted the governor in a favorable light. The other depicted him in precarious shape.

If you guessed that the Democratic firm PPP gave Cooper the good news, you’ve got it wrong. Its June 17-18 survey of 610 registered voters put the governor at 40 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval. In the Civitas/Harper Polling survey of 500 likely voters, taken June 8-10, 53 percent approved of Cooper’s job performance while 34 percent disapproved.

What explains this divergence? The slight difference in timing is unlikely to matter much. The Civitas sample has a tighter screen, likely voters vs. registered ones, and it makes sense that North Carolinians who follow politics more closely and vote routinely would be less undecided about Cooper. But the undecided respondents were 18 percent in the PPP poll and 12 percent in the Civitas one. That doesn’t explain much.

Sometimes question order explains poll results. Questions about polarizing figures or political issues can get respondents thinking in more partisan terms as they then encounter a job-approval question. Such an explanation doesn’t help here, however, because in both cases the job-approval question for Cooper followed questions about Donald Trump and his potential Democratic challengers.

Interestingly, on other matters the two polls didn’t generate significantly different results. Both had the Democrats and Republicans neck-in-neck in a generic-ballot test for state legislature in 2020. PPP had President Donald Trump’s job rating at 46 percent approval to 49 percent disapproval, not statistically distinguishable from Civitas/Harper’s 47 percent to 51 percent.

And both found deterioration in Cooper’s political standing. PPP’s previous public poll, released in January, had the governor above water at 44 percent approval/35 percent disapproval. On the Civitas tracker, the governor’s approval has dropped five points since March while his disapproval has gone up five points.

In a hypothetical 2020 matchup, PPP has Cooper leading Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest by 45 percent to 41 percent. Civitas has Cooper at 47 percent and Forest at 37 percent. The first finding should make the governor’s political team very nervous. But even the second finding should make them uncomfortable. Cooper is below the 50-percent mark. And his political standing has been declining this year, not improving.

When Democrats broke the Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly last November, that empowered Cooper. It also subjected him to greater risk. His proposals were no longer disposable. His vetoes were no longer symbolic.

At the moment, the governor and GOP lawmakers are facing off over the state budget. Cooper is telegraphing that he’ll veto it if it doesn’t include Medicaid expansion, a core issue for the Democratic base. Republican leaders are telegraphing that they and their own political base won’t accept such a vast expansion of the welfare state.

The governor seems to think that centering his budget message on Medicaid expansion is a winning strategy. I don’t see any evidence of that yet. Poll questions on the subject are problematic because respondents are rarely presented with the cost (in federal and state taxes) and frequently mistake Medicaid for Medicare.

I’m not certain why Cooper fared so differently in the two polls. I am fairly certain that his Medicaid gambit won’t boost him in either one.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Flag burning and free speech: A question of who owns the flag

Fri, 2019-06-21 04:00

To agree with others is not a problem in any society; it is the right to disagree that is crucial. It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree.

Ayn Rand, “What is Capitalism?”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted that he believed people who burned the American flag should be punished with either loss of citizenship or a year in prison. This is in spite of the fact the Supreme Court has ruled, on more than one occasion, that flag burning is a form of free speech protected under the U.S. Constitution. Now President Trump has endorsed a constitutional amendment being introduced by Republican Sens. Steve Daines and Kevin Cramer that would make an exception to the First Amendment for flag burning, allowing Congress to make flag burning a federal crime. It should be noted that the late Antonin Scalia, who the president has said is the model for his judicial appointments, was in full agreement with the Supreme Court’s position on this issue.

While I agree with Scalia that flag burning should be protected under the First Amendment, the more fundamental issue is not one of free speech rights but property rights. Put in terms of the above quote from Ayn Rand, flag burning is an expression of disagreement, albeit one that many find particularly distasteful and disrespectful. But the question that should be asked is not whether the act is distasteful or even unpatriotic but rather, “who owns the flag?” The question of whether people should have the right to burn the flag is not a complicated one. If the flag is yours, you have a right to burn it. If it’s not, you don’t.

To relate this issue to the quote from Ayn Rand, it is ownership of the flag, i.e. property rights, that gives its owner the right to use it as a means of expressing disagreement. Because any kind of expression involves the use of property, restrictions on free expression will necessarily involve restrictions on property rights. Ultimately free speech rights are property rights.

Of course, as with all legitimate property rights, there’s an obligation that goes along with it. The property rights of others must be respected. If you want to burn a flag for any reason, you do not have the right to pull down one from someone else’s flag pole. You do not have the right to burn a flag that might be flying in a town square or in front of a VFW Hall. This would be trespass and theft and you should be prosecuted accordingly. The point is that you must legitimately acquire the property rights to the flag, i.e. go out and spend your own money on buying it, before you take a match to it.

It also doesn’t mean that you would have a right to violate any other ordinances in the process of burning the flag, even if it is yours. For example, the right to burn your flag does not give you the right to violate laws against setting fires in public places — parks, sidewalks, etc. —disturbing the peace, or creating a public nuisance. If in the process of burning your flag you violate any other law, you should be subject to the usual enforcement mechanisms and penalties.

To coercively prevent people from using their own property in a way that expresses their beliefs is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of individual liberty and free markets that this country is based on. Simply put, property rights and the right to free speech are inseparable.

Dr. Roy Cordato, former resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation, is editor of Political Economy in the Carolinas.

Categories: Public Policy

Public views split on government size

Thu, 2019-06-20 01:01

Do most voters want government to get bigger or smaller? This seemingly simple question obscures a range of complexities. The answer depends, in part, on whether we are building a budget from the “top down” or the “bottom up,” so to speak.

Hard-core Republican partisans tend to say government should be smaller, spend less, tax less. Hard-core Democratic partisans espouse the opposite positions. For those in the middle, whose support is necessary for either party to form a majority, their views are contextual.

If asked about government’s size in general, they often lean to the fiscally conservative side. For example, Gallup has long posed this question: “Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?”

I dislike this question. The first option lists only individuals and businesses as potential nongovernmental actors, thus leaving out the many family, charitable, religious, and community associations that help form the voluntary sector in a free society.

Nevertheless, Gallup has asked the question routinely since the early 1990s, so one can track public sentiment over time. During some earlier periods, the conservative position far outpaced the progressive one. As recently as 2012, 61 percent said government should do less while 34 percent said it should do more.

In 2019, though, just 50 percent said it should do less vs. 44 percent who said it should do more. Allocating the undecideds proportionally yields a majority, albeit only a bare majority, favoring the conservative side.

That’s if voters are asked about government in general. What if, instead, they are asked whether public expenditures ought to go up for specific programs? This “bottom up” approach to divining public sentiment about government yields a rather different answer.

In a March 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, respondents were asked whether funding should increase, decrease, or stay the same for a host of expenditure categories. In no case did more than 28 percent say spending should go down. A majority favored increasing expenditures in such areas as education (72 percent), veterans benefits (72 percent), infrastructure (62 percent), and Medicare (55 percent). Surveys of public sentiment about state-level expenditures usually produce similar outcomes.

For both sets of findings — majority support for fiscal restraint in general and majority support for increased spending in particular — you can see the usual patterns in the cross-tabulations. The Republican base overwhelmingly takes the conservative side in both cases. The Democratic base overwhelmingly takes the progressive side. The respondents who change sides, depending on the nature of the question, are the “soft” Ds and Rs as well as true swing voters.

Their ambivalence isn’t so hard to understand. Don’t you feel that way about your own household budget? On the one hand, you’d like to buy a house with more room, or take more trips, or give your children some opportunities you didn’t have growing up. On the other hand, you have to keep your overall spending in line with your income or risk ruinous debt.

In the short run, at least, you have to learn to say “no,” including to yourself. In the long run, you or other family members may seek other employment to raise the overall cap on your household expenditures, so you can accommodate increases in some areas without having to exact equivalent reductions in others.

Government budgeting is more challenging precisely because the costs and benefits aren’t directly aligned. Even if you expect spending hikes to result in higher taxes, you might rationally expect to get more from the enhanced program than you will pay in additional taxes. That inherent bias in favor of spending more is precisely why I and other fiscal conservatives advocate tight, constitutional limitations on how fast government can grow. We think the “top-down” model for budgeting is more relevant than the “bottom-up” question. Progressives disagree. And so it goes.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy