Raleigh’s ‘help’ does more harm

The Observer editorial board

Rep. Jason Saine’s bill offers optional new local sales taxes.
Rep. Jason Saine’s bill offers optional new local sales taxes.

After elbowing their way into the middle of various local political issues around the state, lawmakers in Raleigh have a tool to give cities and counties more control – not less – over an important local issue.

While locals squeezed by the General Assembly’s muscle-flexing no doubt would welcome a show of respect from Raleigh, this particular gift is not worth accepting.

Rep. Jason Saine’s House Bill 903 would let cities and counties enact a new quarter-cent sales tax. It would mean an additional $37 million annually for Mecklenburg County; the city of Charlotte could reap nearly as much.

Saine says it would allow local officials to replace the income they lost when the legislature killed the business privilege tax. Charlotte, which lost $18 million, is weighing budget cuts, a hiring freeze and swapping its $47 garbage fee for a more lucrative property tax hike.

Saine’s bill would seem at first glance a refreshing change in tone, one more in keeping with GOP lawmakers’ traditional deference to local authorities on local issues. They’ve veered from that path of late, looking to seize local power on issues ranging from control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to the method of election for Wake County commissioners.

Saine’s bill represents another way for conservative lawmakers to push forward their most treasured article of faith: that the economy wins when you lower business taxes, no matter the cost to the middle-class and the poor.

Saine’s bill would be a particularly bold manifestation of that unfortunate trend in Raleigh. Taxes paid by businesses would be replaced by sales taxes paid by individuals, with the poorest among us paying a bigger percentage of their income toward them than anyone else.

This at a time when a January report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showed state and local taxes take up 9.2 percent of total income for North Carolina’s poorest families. It nibbles 5.3 percent of our richest families’ income.

Of course, there’s so much tax policy infighting among GOP lawmakers that it’s hard to say if Saine’s bill goes anywhere. Saine, a Republican from Lincolnton, says he filed it as a “placeholder,” to preserve the option while the House and Senate merge their conflicting visions on taxation and economic development.

Sen. Bob Rucho said Wednesday during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee that he expects lawmakers will eventually hammer out a plan to “move North Carolina forward” in economic growth and job creation.

Asked by a colleague if those plans will keep state revenues from dipping, the retired dentist from Matthews offered a lawyerly reply: “My intention would be to make sure we have the resources to fulfill our obligations for the priorities this General Assembly feels is necessary.”

Whatever that means. We hope it’s not more budget problems for Charlotte. We’ve been “helped” quite enough already.