Investing for a Better Future for All
The political debate about economic growth revolves around a couple of main arguments. Tax cuts versus a high-performing educational system. Fewer regulations versus infrastructure investment.
To decide what’s best for North Carolina, we deserve a richer conversation. We shouldn’t be debating what will make a hypothetical state grow, but what will make this state — and all of its communities — grow, prosper, and create a better future for all.
While North Carolina’s overall population is growing rapidly and becoming more diverse and prosperous, almost four-fifths of our counties are experiencing both population and economic declines. This is unacceptable. Similarly, we have some of the nation’s best universities, a community college system that is the envy of most of the US, and we pioneered universal kindergarten, but we’ve been backsliding on public education from kindergarten through college for a decade.
North Carolina’s families deserve better. They deserve North Carolina-specific solutions. Our economy demands a strategy for growth and equity that benefits all North Carolinians, rural and urban alike. Our leaders need to make clear what their plan is for North Carolina’s economic future. Here are some of my thoughts.
First, our universities and community colleges must be treated as the state-defining assets that they are. Decades ago, our leaders recognized that first class post-secondary education would be the driver of prosperity for the entire state. But in recent years the GOP-led General Assembly has harmed these assets by choosing corporate tax cuts over education funding. We know that the first factor companies assess when they are considering investing or relocating is the depth of the local talent pool. If we prepare talented job-ready graduates, as we have in the past, companies will move here and start-ups will grow here. Having the right talent is more powerful than any tax incentive or deregulation program.
We must stop treating our universities as political footballs, protect their independence and mission, and ensure that they have the resources to help North Carolina win the talent war. And we must invest in our community colleges, our state’s best institutions for truly providing access to life-changing education at the scale our economy demands. Our community colleges have a proven track record of helping our citizens, both rural and urban, prepare themselves for the jobs of today and tomorrow. In a rapidly changing job market, they are absolutely essential. It’s hard to provide an economic path forward for a small rural county, but our community colleges have proven that they can — if we provide them with the resources they need.
Second, we must recognize that workforce readiness starts early. There’s more to education than being ready for a job, but if our children are falling behind before they even reach kindergarten, they’ll never be ready for the increasingly technical, constantly evolving jobs that will define our next half-century. We need better early education and stronger K-12 schools with higher teacher pay if our children are to reach their full potential.
The economic necessity of strong K-12 schools was bolstered earlier this year by a landmark court ruling. The Leandro case ruling declares that big change is needed to meet our constitutional obligation to provide every North Carolinian with a sound, basic education. That court ruling must be matched with the political will to provide the necessary public funding to guarantee a high quality public education to every child in our state, no matter where they live or what their economic circumstances are.
Finally, infrastructure matters. We need broadband that is accessible to every resident of our state. We need transportation infrastructure of all types, rail, roads, and public transit that connect our rural areas with our cities. We need to create entrepreneurial hubs and spaces that make it easy for North Carolinians with ideas to grow them into businesses.
Right now, our infrastructure barely meets the needs of our already-growing regions. Our rural areas are already a decade or more behind. To ensure all our communities have access to these 21st century resources, it’s going to take public investment.
I can tell you that legislative Democrats are ready to make those investments. My friends across the aisle continue to believe we need to cut taxes for corporations further, but our tax rates are already highly competitive as a state. It’s time to start channeling our state’s resources into investment and infrastructure, not more tax breaks for companies.
When I talk to leaders of businesses both large and small, they know we need a shift. They know that the strategy of the last decade is not what we need for the decades to come.
As we head into the 2020 legislative session and later into elections, North Carolina deserves a serious debate over what our economy demands and how each party is proposing to supply it. Education and infrastructure versus tax cuts and deregulation. I pick the side that wants to invest in our state — and its future — and make all of us stronger.
Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50, covering portions of Orange and Caswell Counties. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article previously appeared in the News of Orange and Caswell Messenger.