Fuller: ‘Draconian’ Senate sales tax plan will rob Mecklenburg of millions

Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Trevor Fuller
Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Trevor Fuller dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller on Friday bashed the N.C. Senate’s plan to shift sales tax revenues to North Carolina’s poorer counties – a “draconian” proposal he said would rob local residents of millions and weaken one of the state’s largest moneymakers.

The chairman also took aim at Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius who voted in favor of the Senate’s approved budget despite comments last week suggesting he wouldn’t support the sales tax plan.

But Tarte told the Observer his stance on sales tax redistribution hasn’t changed at all, and his vote was a formality to keep the budget process moving: “The final budget hasn’t been voted on yet. The sales tax redistribution is a massively problematic component that’s got to be hammered out.”

During a news conference Friday morning, Fuller, a Democrat, said commissioners are looking to members of the House to halt the bill officials predict will cost the county. Under at least one version of the plan, county officials estimate Mecklenburg could lose a total $62 million – or $12 million a year – over the next five years.

“These are dollars that we need to support our growing education system...dollars that we need to support our parks and our libraries...dollars we need to support our criminal justice system,” he said.

State senators on Thursday approved a $21 billion budget plan that includes a provision requiring the state to distribute 20 percent of revenues based on where sales occur and 80 percent based on each county’s population. Today, sales tax revenues are mostly distributed based on where the purchases are made – a system that benefits tourist destinations such as Charlotte.

Bill opponents say the fallout could be devastating for Mecklenburg County, possibly leading officials to raise the property tax rate. Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, has lambasted the proposal, calling it “class warfare,” and Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat, said in an Observer editorial this week that the plan is a “lose-lose” proposition and “a recipe for making everyone in North Carolina worse off.”

But supporters argue that sending those dollars to rural parts of the state will help counties still reeling from the recession.

Taking money from Mecklenburg, a “donor county” that already generates 20 percent of the state’s revenue, and doling it out to those areas will not stabilize them economically, Fuller said.

“An additional $500,000 going to Anson County is not going to build another school,” he said. “It’s not going to build a library. It’s not going to build a road. All it’s doing is taking money from your economic centers that are driving economic growth in North Carolina and weakening them.”

Republican Sen. Tom McInnis, who represents Anson County and co-sponsored the bill, said the cash that rural counties could receive would be a “game changer.” Many of the counties in his district lag behind wealthier areas, such as Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

Take education for example. Anson County’s supplement to local teachers is about $620 a year, he said. By comparison, Mecklenburg’s supplement varies from $5,000 to $8,500, depending on a teacher’s experience level. McInnis feels sales tax money might balance the scales.

“If they can take that money and use it for the local teacher supplement so we can hire higher-quality teachers in classrooms, we can create a more highly skilled workforce to do 21st century jobs,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Fuller praised Mecklenburg legislators who voted against the budget but took issue with Sen. Jeff Tarte voting for it. Last week, Tarte made comments saying no one he knew in the Mecklenburg delegation would support the redistribution plan.

“I can’t understand why Sen. Tarte would do this to his own constituency,” Fuller said. “Maybe he will redeem himself in the end.”

Tarte said nothing in the budget is final and he still feels the sales tax plan is troublesome. “It’s a nasty problem for Mecklenburg,” he said. “Until we have the final version (of the budget) and what the aspects are, I’ll reserve judgment for how I’ll vote.”

The Senate’s budget still has to go to the House, which passed a different, costlier plan. Lawmakers are expected to spend the next few weeks hashing out differences between their plans before sending it to the governor.

Fuller feels there’s strong opposition in the House, particularly from Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican who chairs the House’s finance committee: “I believe that he has been listening to our concerns,” Fuller said.

Fuller said he’s been on the phone with lawmakers, and county commissioners have representatives in Raleigh who are “making sure our voice is clear about this,” he said.

“We can’t pit one county against the other,” he said. “We can’t rob Peter to save Paul.”

McFadden: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @JmcfaddenObsGov

Related stories from Charlotte Observer