By Chris Fitzsimon
You don’t have to spend much time reading the conservative blogs and the reports from the right-wing think tanks to figure out what they want us to believe. Things are not only grim in North Carolina, they are worse than almost anywhere in the country, and top state officials are to blame, Democratic officials of course.
That’s part of the narrative the folks on the right are trying to construct to convince people that things are hopeless and that the only thing that might work is to change who’s in control of state government.
They know that their endless doomsday press releases are wearing thin as people realize that North Carolina is struggling because the national economy is struggling, but that hasn’t slowed them down, only prompted them to address that point with more misleading claims about the state budget and unemployment.
In just the last two weeks, we’ve been told that North Carolina’s budget problems are among the five worst in the nation and that any drop in the state’s unemployment rate should be discounted because it is still close to double digits and higher than the national average.
One of the latest screeds admits that, “Yes, every state has been forced to deal with the economic slump, but some have addressed their problems in better ways than others,” then proceeds to cite a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures that says that North Carolina’s budget hole is the worst in the Southeast as a percentage of the general fund for fiscal year 2011.
There are two major problems with this claim. One, the NCSL report lumps together states like North Carolina that have a biennial budget with states that pass a budget every year.
The General Assembly addressed a budget gap of $4.4 billion in 2009-10 and another shortfall of $1.2 billion this past summer, but the gap for 2011 is presented as $5.6 billion, the total for two years.
The totals for states with annual budgets are much smaller by definition. North Carolina’s budget hole just for 2011 is $1.2 million, hardly out of line with the rest of the states.
Other statesâ€™ funding gaps are also lower because they include federal stimulus money, which is not included to reduce North Carolina’s figure.
A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that North Carolina’s expected budget hole in 2012 is comparable to most of the states in the Southeast and much lower than South Carolina’s.
Even more disingenuous is the right’s use of the $4.4 million figure for the budget gap in 2009-10. That number comes from the difference in state revenues in 2009-10 and the 2008-09 continuation budget, the amount that would be needed to continue state services at that year’s level.
The folks on the right spent last year’s entire budget debate refusing to accept that the 2008-09 continuation budget was the place to start when calculating how much lawmakers reduced spending in 2009-10.
Now that it’s convenient to use that number to paint their dire scenario, they gladly agree with the $4.4 billion figure. That ought to mean they would finally acknowledge that lawmakers cut almost $2 billion from the budget in 2009-10, a fact the folks on the right have never admitted.
None of that fits into the “North Carolina is the worst” theme, so it is not included. The same is true with the recent unemployment numbers that the report from the right cites to show that North Carolina’s taxes are too high and are discouraging job growth.
There’s no mention of the other states in the Southeast in the unemployment claims. That’s because North Carolina’s latest rate of 9.8 percent is lower than those in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi and Kentucky and is the same as Tennesseeâ€™s.
How can North Carolina tax rates be the problem if so many Southern states have higher jobless figures? There’s no answer to that of course and no mention that only a handful of states have had bigger drops in their unemployment since June 2009 than North Carolina.
There’s plenty to be distressed about in our state’s economy and the thousands of people out of work and the thousands more underemployed and struggling to make ends meet. And there are reasons to be upset at state leaders too, primarily for not making enough public investments to spur more job growth.
But to hold out North Carolina as one of the states in the worst economic shape in the country is simply ridiculous. That’s ideology and hope for November talking, not facts and data. Don’t fall for it.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.