Major metros’ major impact

Jul. 24, 2014 @ 05:29 PM

The legislative majority’s disdain for the state’s largest cities continued to surface this week, this time in a bill to cap the county-controlled portion of the sales tax at 2.5 percent.

That cap has an impact throughout the Triangle, including Durham, even though two counties – Durham and Orange – already have levied the local tax at 2.75 percent, splitting the last increase between education needs and a much-needed improved regional transit system.

But Wake, under the new cap, will be in a vice. Voters there could assign all the half-cent authority they have left to transit, but that would stymie an already-planned vote on an increase for education.

Or, they could allocate a portion to each – but the resulting take for transit would be too little for the county to participate in the envisioned light-rail system connecting, ultimately, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham and the job-rich Research Triangle Park.

The specifics of this, as unappealing as they are, are less troubling than the anti-urban sentiment underlying them. In essence, many legislators are arguing that the state’s most populous counties are too rich, and we need to give the rest of the starte’s counties more tools to attract the economic development that is proving so elusive for them.

On that latter point – absolutely. Let’s do all we can to help the parts of the state where the collapse of the textile, tobacco and furniture industries and the disappearance of tobacco as major cash crop, among other factors, have left economic devastation.

But even with the best of intentions, that’s tough slog. The nation’s population and the nation’s economy are becoming more and more urban-centric.

“What is clear … is that the economic prosperity of the U.S. economy is directly linked with the economic growth and job producing power of our nation's 363 metro economies,” a report on “U.S. Metro Economies” noted last month.

“Metropolitan areas continued to be the beating heart of the US economy in 2013,” said the report prepared for the U. S. Conference of Mayors. “They were home to 84 percent of the nation’s population, 86 percent of total non-farm employment, 87 percent of total real income, 90 percent of new housing starts, and 90 percent of real gross domestic product. And they are expanding: total metropolitan employment climbed by 1.9 percent last year, real gross product increased by 2.1 percent, and metropolitan area population rose by 0.9 percent, with each growth rate faster than that of the US.”

That is the same report that said that among the 100 largest metro areas in the country, Raleigh-Cary would experience the second-highest growth in gross metro product in the remainder of this decade. Durham-Chapel Hill, it projects, will experience the fifth greatest.

Those metro economies, along with Charlotte-Mecklenburg, are driving that of the state. We can bring more jobs to our small towns and rural areas – and should – but if the major engines of our growth lose traction, that would spell deep trouble for the Tar Heel state.