Usurping local decisions

Jul. 17, 2014 @ 06:01 PM

Three years ago, Durham County voters agreed by fairly substantial margins to levy additional local sales taxes to support mass transit and education.

They didn’t seem to feel a need to choose between the two. Indeed, each local addition -- -- a half-cent for transit, a quarter-cent for education -- was a separate box on the ballot.  Durham residents could clearly have stated a preference for one over the other.

Instead, they felt both of those important government services – providing education for our children and moving toward a transportation system less fully dependent on building more and more lanes of highways – were worthy of support. Six in 10 voters approved the transit tax, slightly fewer the education levy.

How dare they have the chance to make that decision, those in charge of the state Senate seem to feel these days.

A senate panel endorsed a bill Wednesday that would allow counties to call a referendum on a local sales tax of up to a half-percent – but for education or transit, not both. 

The reasoning is difficult to comprehend. Here’s how Sen. Rick Gunn, an Alamance Republican who is pushing for the change, explained it to the Senate Finance Committee;

“If you’re going to do and want to invest in the transportation, we’d like you to go ahead and make that decision. If you want to invest in education, we’d like to go ahead and make that decision.”

Huh? When did choosing between those two possibilities for public investment become an either-or, zero-sum game?  And since when did this legislature, dominated by a party that long has argued for limiting the scope of state and federal governments, become so interested in micromanaging what traditionally have been local decisions?

Since about the time that party took power.

The legislature has essentially revoked local decisions on land-use decisions – as in Durham’s controversial 751 South project – and billboard control. It has capped the business privilege tax. It has hemmed in annexation powers that have helped keep North Carolina’s cities healthier as growth has spread outward.

As the Charlotte Observer said in an editorial Thursday, “By limiting the ability of local governments to raise revenue, the state is nullifying the voices of voters who elected local officials to make decisions about their cities, towns and counties. In this case, the state doesn't want to give local voters even the chance to say yes to taxing themselves.”

The pending bill would not impact Durham’s ability to assess the education and transit sales taxes. But it would have an indirect impact on an issue important to many here and throughout the Triangle – the expansion of mass transit service among the cities of the region. 

Wake County Commissioners have been loath to put the transit-tax question to a vote – and ultimately whether they are in the game or not has a major impact on the scope of transit plans in the Triangle.

But the biggest impact for Durham is the continuing accumulation of decisions the state is wresting from local governments.