Tom Campbell

If you come to the end of the year and you’ve got surplus money in the bank what do you do? This seldom happens in most homes, but would you spend it? Save it? Or, if you’re the government, would you return some of it to the people who sent it? That’s the option Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger raised recently.

The state has almost $900 million more than budget analysts had projected for the June 30 fiscal year end. Much of that is the result of the state’s strong economy, some is the result of last year’s federal tax changes, and some was because state agencies didn’t spend all that was allocated to them. This is good news, so let’s strike up a chorus of “Happy Days are Here Again,” before figuring what to do with the surplus.

Here’s the Republican perspective. “This is what good government looks like,” they boast. “Since we took charge in 2011, we’ve cut taxes, made government more efficient, increased budgets for schools, road construction, healthcare and even stockpiled savings for the next rainy day.” Their first instinct is to stash more into savings – you never can have enough savings – and perhaps consider returning some of it to the people. Republicans will quickly tell us this is “one-time” money, meaning it may or may not reoccur in the current year. For that reason we shouldn’t go on a wild spending spree. Some Republicans will even say this is evidence that taxes are too high, and we should cut them again.

Democrats see this entirely differently. “Here we are in one of the great economic expansions in modern history and all our Republican leaders want to do is cut, cut, cut,” they say. “And the folks who get the biggest benefits from these cuts are the wealthy and corporations.” We’ve already got more than $1 billion in savings, but Berger is wrong by saying the state received more than it needs. There are serious needs going unmet in education, healthcare, public safety and public infrastructure. We are not going to create a better tomorrow by starving today’s needs and certainly won’t cut our way to a greater tomorrow. This is a time to invest in our future.

Last week, legislative leaders introduced a bill that would return some $680 million to taxpayers, with a maximum of $125 per person or $250 per couple. The remainder would go to the Rainy Day Fund. Senate President Pro Tem Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore maintain this is a stewardship issue for some 5.1 million to receive refunds; about 350,000 would get refunded all the state income taxes they paid. The bill may not pass the legislature; even if it did it’s likely to earn another veto from Gov. Roy Cooper. It could establish a precedent for taxpayers to demand refunds of any future surpluses. But you do have to admit this is darn good politics, coming before an important election in 2020.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our elected leaders could celebrate our good fortune and wouldn’t have to insist on an “either, or” scenario where one party had to win and the other lose? What if our elected officials worried less about being right and more about doing what’s right for our state? Is that too much to expect?

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.