More on the State of the State

By: - February 22, 2005 4:36 pm

Governor Mike Easley’s State of the State speech and the reaction doesn’t bode very well for a thoughtful debate this legislative session about public policy and the state’s priorities.

The lottery

Easley managed to deliver the speech while suffering with the flu, but that doesn’t explain why he continues to misrepresent the lottery to lawmakers and the people of North Carolina.

Easley said a person at a church told him that he was opposed to the lottery. Easley said the man was selling church raffle tickets when he said it. That got a few chuckles out of the lawmakers, but what is the connection?

The lottery is nothing at all like a church raffle and Easley knows it. First of all, it is the church not the state government selling the tickets. More importantly, no church pressures the poorest members of the congregation to buy raffle tickets with deceptive ads.

Cigarette tax

Easley’s support for a cigarette tax increase elicited a disappointing but predictable reaction. Easley’s didn’t mention the amount of the increase he would seek, but it is expected that his budget will include a 50 cents a pack hike.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger opposes the increase and said that raising the cigarette tax will not stop teenagers from smoking, adding that “history tells us that its not.” Not sure about history, but social science and public health data shows us that it will.

Democratic Senator David Hoyle thinks that 50 cents is too much. It may actually not be enough to dramatically affect teen smoking and that explains why some tobacco companies are not opposing a small increase in the tax.

Stale rhetoric

Speaking of Berger, surely the Republicans can do better in their critique of Easley’s proposals than recycled rhetoric and mistaken assumptions about his plan. Berger issued a statement after the speech that basically boiled down to the old familiar line that the state has a spending problem.

It seems like Berger has a reality problem. No one in either party has ever suggested enough cuts in the state budget to balance it without any new taxes. That is not an accident. Specific proposals would have to include cutting education or human services or corrections and they don’t want to suggest that.

Oddly, Berger criticized Easley for not ending a temporary income tax increase on the state’s richest taxpayers. It is true Easley didn’t mention it during his speech, but there have been widespread media reports that Easley will recommend the expiration of that tax in the budget he presents this week.

Shift in Easley and tax policy

On the tax front, if Easley does try to end the income tax hike on the wealthy, it not only means virtually tax increase proposed will fall hardest on the poor, it contradicts the promises of Easley himself in 2000 while running for governor. Easley wrote in an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer then that his main priorities would be “lessening the burden on working families,” and accused his opponent of “trickle down” tax approaches.

Let’s see, Easley wants to repeal the tax increase on the wealthiest taxpayers and leave in place the sales tax increase that falls harder on working class families. He wants a lottery that is clearly regressive, as the poor play far more as a percentage of their income than the wealthy. Even the proposal to raise the cigarette tax would fall more on the poor, though there are now programs in place to help poor smokers kick the deadly habit.

And while his budget may be different, his speech mentioned virtually none of the vital and under funded human service programs that serve many of those same families that will now shoulder more of the taxes.

Wonder what happened to the 2000 version of Mike Easley and lessening the burden on working families?

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066