Spend, save, or return?
Saturday, August 24, 2019
If you come to the end of the year and you’ve got surplus money in the bank what do you do? This seldom happens in most homes, but would you spend it? Save it? Or, with a government, would you return some of it to the people who sent it? That’s the option Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger raised recently.
The State has almost $900 million more than budget analysts had projected for the June 30 fiscal year end. Much of that is the result of the state’s strong economy, some is the result of last year’s federal tax changes, and some was because state agencies didn’t spend all that was allocated to them. This is good news, so let’s strike up a chorus of “Happy Days are Here Again,” before figuring what to do with the surplus.
Let’s hear first from the Republican perspective. “Here’s what good government looks like,” they boast. “Since we took charge in 2011, we’ve cut taxes, made government more efficient, increased budgets for schools, road construction, healthcare and even stockpiled savings for the next rainy day.” Their first instinct is to stash more into savings — you never can have enough savings — and perhaps consider returning some of it to the people, as Berger hinted. Republicans will quickly tell us this is “one-time” money, meaning it may or may not reoccur in the current year, therefore we shouldn’t go on a wild spending spree. Some Republicans will even say this is evidence that taxes are too high, and we should cut them again.
Democrats see this entirely differently. “Here we are in one of the great economic expansions in modern history and all our Republican leaders want to do is cut, cut, cut,” they say. “And the folks who get the biggest benefits from these cuts are the wealthy and corporations.” We’ve already got more than $1 billion in savings, but Berger is wrong by saying the state received more than it needs. There are serious needs going unmet in education, health care, public safety and public infrastructure. We are not going to create a better tomorrow by starving today’s needs and certainly won’t cut our way to a greater tomorrow. This is a time to invest in our future.
For a moment, let’s assume we decided to return some of the surplus — say half of it. Now would you refund money based on how much a person paid in income taxes or sales taxes? Or would you just dole it out on a per capita basis? And how much state employee time, paperwork, postage and other expenses would it cost to accomplish this?
Don’t get me wrong, nobody will turn down money, but at most we’re probably looking at 100 bucks or so per person, not enough to make a huge difference to most folks. But in an upcoming political year it sure sounds good to voters.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our elected leaders could celebrate our good fortune and wouldn’t have to insist on an “either, or” scenario where one party had to win and the other lose? What if our elected officials worried less about being right and more about doing what’s right for our state? Is that too much to expect?
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and host of NC SPIN on UNC-TV at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.