A glorious bank of flowers greeted me as I drove from Virginia to North Carolina last week, and I knew I was home.
Those flowers, which brighten highways all over the state, are about more than landscaping. They symbolize a long, historical legacy that distinguishes North Carolina from its neighbors: a strong commitment to making the state a great place to live.
Like the flowers by our roadsides, our state’s legacy needs our attention. If we take it for granted, our well-tended garden will go to weeds, and that is exactly what the legislature’s latest budget proposals would do by cutting into our tradition of collective investment in public education, good roads and healthy communities.
What is missing from this budget debate is the critical role of taxes in making those investments possible. It was our state tax system that helped bring North Carolina into the 20th century. The extensive network of roads that connected communities and businesses to their consumers went through tremendous growth with the support of state funding in the early part of the century. The education of the state’s workforce, the development of a civic life, and a commitment to learning was made possible by the statewide network of schoolhouses supported with tax dollars.
The infrastructure that has been built with our collective investment has served us well. It has attracted business to the state and propelled economic growth. It has defined the state’s character in positive terms, as a place where people are committed to each other and their future. That infrastructure also took a lot of time and effort to construct.
Most of the goods and services that make up our state infrastructure are not optional. If we don’t pay for them with state taxes, we’ll end up paying for them – directly or indirectly – in other ways. As North Carolina’s history shows, those alternatives are less efficient, more expensive and extremely problematic.
The state services that we now have did not just appear. They took years of hard work to construct, and are a legacy that previous generations have now passed onto us.
You might think, for instance, that education would be a low priority in the 1800s and that the current system simply evolved as the need for education increased. You would be wrong.
Many state leaders in the early 19th century thought North Carolina’s educational system to be embarrassingly backward. They considered education important to the state’s economic future. They thought it essential that everyone be given an equal opportunity to succeed.
They also considered education central to the legacy of the Revolution, which depended on an educated citizenry to make informed decisions about their government.
State leaders worked long and hard to change that system: to fund the public education and to make it available to all the state’s children. They did so because they thought that system would benefit us all. It has.
Similarly, state leaders also worked to create a social safety net that would support those in need and protect us all when we fall on hard times. That legacy has had an enormous impact on North Carolina: the commitment to our infrastructure is one of the reasons why we are no longer one of the nation’s poorest, most economically backward states.
The need for goods and services that the state now provides does not disappear just because we no longer want to pay taxes. We cannot afford to do without education.
If we don’t pool our resources and pay for it together through our taxes, then we’ll still pay for it. Parents will pay tuition. The rest of us will pay in other ways – through a constricted, low-wage economy.
If the state cuts back on its social safety net, we will continue to pay. We will either support those who cannot care for themselves through other means or learn to tolerate new levels of social disorder, as our own history and the situation in developing countries around the world suggest.
Why would we want to dismantle what took so much time and effort to build and risk going back a system that was already inadequate in the 19th century?
We can’t afford to go back to the past.
We can’t afford to walk away from our future.
We can’t afford to let the weeds overrun our flowers.