If you live south of Asheville, it’s smart to check your mapping software before making a trip to the city. Checking ahead can save you from scrambling for alternate routes or, worse, sitting in a traffic slow-down on Interstate 26 while a 30-minute trip turns into one that takes an hour or more.
Roads around the Western North Carolina hub haven’t kept up with population growth, as is the case with other parts of the state. Between 2010 and 2019, North Carolina grew by 9.65 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates, making it one of the fastest-growing states in the U.S.
In June 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law the Build NC Bond Act to help expedite highway projects. The bonds will come into play if the DOT maintains a strong project delivery pace and needs additional funds. Something, at least, is being done to catch up with road needs.
But growth is impacting every aspect of the North Carolina’s infrastructure. Cooper and state lawmakers face other urgent needs including managing storm water flooding, planning for sea level rise along the state’s coast and upgrading the state’s dams and bridges.
But perhaps the most urgent is providing adequate school facilities to educate its young people.
North Carolina schools face an $8 billion backlog in school facilities needed by fiscal year 2020-2021, according to a report from the North Carolina Justice Center. It’s a backlog that, according to the report, is a self-inflicted wound caused by rounds of tax cuts passed by the General Assembly since 2013. Those cuts have reduced state revenues by $3.6 billion a year.
“This rash of tax cuts has dramatically undermined our ability to deliver needed services for North Carolina’s growing population,” the report, published in March 2019 says. Before the Great Recession, school construction was supplemented by state government using a portion of corporate income tax and by lottery revenue. Since that time, corporate tax cuts and diversion of lottery income to other purposes has diminished state support for school construction by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter wrote about some of the situations that have resulted in his blog “Notes from the Chalkboard” in May 2018.
One Mecklenburg teacher taught in a trailer infested with ants living inside its walls. She and her students suffered bites.
“Classes with so many children that some have to sit on the floor. Other classes taking place in closets. Blind students who can’t get books in Braille. … Teachers forced to stop class to attend to special medical needs because there’s no nurse on duty. Welcome to public schools in North Carolina,” Parmenter wrote in the post.
The American Society of Civil Engineers periodically grades the nation’s infrastructure and that of each state. North Carolina’s infrastructure was last graded in 2013, at which time the state’s schools received a “C.” The report card noted that “over 58% of North Carolina schools will require renovations in the next 5 years….”
The ASCE projected those renovation costs at $8 billion. But the legislature did not increase funding to meet those needs. Instead, it took funds off the table by slicing the corporate tax rate from 6.9 percent in 2013 to 2.5 percent in 2019. North Carolina’s education infrastructure continues to fall behind as lawmakers choose corporate tax cuts over educating the workforce on which those very corporations will depend in years to come.
One of the most basic functions of government is to provide an infrastructure that allows people, the human capital that supports the economy, to realize their full potential. The infrastructure should facilitate the creation of jobs and the education and safety of the workforce. Without roads that move traffic, schools that educate a future workforce, wastewater and storm water systems that prevent flooding and keep water clean, not only are people at risk of dying unnecessarily, business that brings prosperity will go elsewhere.
A safe, effective and efficient infrastructure underpins a thriving economy and a thriving economy provides the wealth to support the infrastructure on which it depends, but if that wealth is diverted to other ends, the infrastructure begins to fail and the economy it supports will eventually suffer as well.
In June, Gov. Cooper vetoed a state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. That budget failed to include a bond initiative asked for by the governor and passed by the House that would have provided a secure and sustained source of revenue to fund school capital needs. The governor’s compromise proposal includes the bond initiative, albeit at $3.5 billion instead of the original $3.9 billion request. If legislators want to keep North Carolina competitive, they will accept the compromise proposal and phase out the corporate tax cuts they’ve implemented to pay the debt service rather than robbing other areas of the state budget and undermining other critical needs.