That the Republicans somehow remain in charge in Washington despite themselves is a subject for another day. In Raleigh, however, the GOP has never managed to be more than a silly sideshow, which is why the Democrats' tired act just goes on and on.
Take, for example, the crusade being waged by a Salisbury lawyer named Bill Graham, who apparently plans on being the Republican nominee for governor in 2008, assuming the party doesn't want to run somebody who could win. Graham and his "group," North Carolina Conservatives United, want to roll back a 2.9-cents-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax that kicked in because gas prices jumped. Graham claims to have collected 40,000 signatures. He's made a TV spot. He's got the state Republican Party all in a tizzy.
Over 3 cents.
OK, let's say we save the 3 cents. How, exactly, would the Republicans pay for the new schools we need, the new roads, the mental-health reforms, and on and on down the list of subjects to which the Democrats can pay lip service because the Republicans so studiously ignore them.
Chris Fitzsimon, of N.C. Policy Watch, reports that some leading Democratic legislators have cooked up a scheme whereby the state would "relieve" the counties of their share of Medicaid costs--about $500 million a year--and also relieve them of their 1-cent sales tax, which would add $1 billion to the state's coffers. Then (are you following the pea?) these Democrats would give the counties the "option" of adding on another 1-cent sales tax for local purposes--like schools--while cutting corporate taxes and allowing the small surtax on the highest personal incomes to expire.
The result? "A dramatically more regressive tax system," Fitzsimon says, with low-income folks taxed more--via the sales tax--while the wealthy pay less.
But hey, thanks to the Democrats, poor folks will have a chance to win the lottery. Republican legislators, almost to a man and woman, opposed the lottery when it was before the General Assembly last year. Almost. But the two Republican senators who didn't--who chose instead to be no-shows when it came time to vote--were enough to let it limp across the finish line.
Other than that, the Republicans had no plan to pay for anything.
And at the local level, the Republicans are, if anything, even worse. Wake County will need a reported $4-5 billion for new schools over the next decade, plus, according to CAMPO (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), another $2.1 billion--toward an $8 billion program--for planned road and transit improvements. To say nothing of unplanned ones.
To meet this need for billions, here's what we've heard so far from elected Republicans:
n Raleigh City Councilor Philip Isley says take $7 million a year away from the Triangle Transit Authority's railroad funding and use it for--something. Isley believes in this so strongly that he withdrew his proposal Tuesday before the council could vote on it. No matter. He made his political point, the only point he had.
n Raleigh Councilor Tommy Craven suggests we use the city and county's hotel and prepared-meals taxes to pay for schools; but only the tiny portion of same that's not, of course, already allocated to future debt service for the RBC Center, the new Raleigh convention center, and a host of other tourism-related projects for which the General Assembly approved these taxes in the first place.
n State Rep. Russell Capps, according to the Triangle Business Journal, thinks the county should consider selling the naming rights to schools, and other in-school advertising opportunities.
Yeah, that'll get it done. I can't wait for the big game between the Target High School Red Circles and the North Hills Mallers. (Winner plays the American Tobacco Smokers.)
Meanwhile, Craven, Isley, Capps & Co. are dead-set against any talk of impact fees on new development, which actually could raise some serious new money and is therefore anathema to the Homebuilders Association of Wake County, which controls the GOP and the Democrats, too, most of the time.
The issue of impact fees is front and center in Raleigh thanks to an initiative by Mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat, who's been trying to get them raised for most of his four-plus years in office. Failing that so far, Meeker did persuade the City Council to pay for a study of its low-low impact fees by Austin-based Duncan Associates.
The Duncan study arrived last month and reported what Raleigh already knew: Its "facility fees," meant to pay for the new roads and parks that growth necessitates, do nothing of the sort. Raleigh's fees, Duncan found, pay less than 20 percent of these growth-driven costs, mainly because they've remained "essentially unchanged" since 1988!
That's right. By law, Raleigh could charge as much as $3,404 per new single-family house for road and parks fees. That's according to the formula established by the General Assembly and the city's own ordinances. Instead, Raleigh charges $682. The national average? $7,931. The state average is $3,826. (Other formulas establish the maximum fees for multi-family units, retail and office space and industrial plants; Raleigh's, in every case, are extremely low compared to the competition.)
The bottom line, according to Duncan, is that Raleigh is leaving $20 million a year on the table by not charging what it could for roads and parks.
That's $20 million it could absorb in property-tax related costs, freeing a like amount for Wake County to spend on schools. For everyone in Raleigh, after all, it's the same property tax nut when it comes in on the mortgage statement.
Moreover, Durham County is in court fighting for its right to charge developers $2,000 per new house for added school costs, a fee that brought in some $7 million a year there, and could be good for an additional $25-30 million a year in Wake County if it were to follow suit.
A Superior Court judge ruled a year ago that Durham needed specific authority from the General Assembly to enact a school fee; Durham appealed, arguing that it could do so under its general authority to finance school construction by reasonable means. The case is awaiting a ruling in the state Court of Appeals.
"Specific authority," if Durham and Wake Counties sought it from the state, would doubtless be met with furious opposition by the N.C. Home Builders Association (NCHBA), whose power is such that it was able to brag--after the 2004-05 term ended--"not a single bill opposed by NCHBA was enacted into law this session." Included, it proudly noted, were "six impact-fee and land-transfer tax bills" that it whipped. (And it helped defeat a higher minimum wage--you go, NCHBA.)
The Raleigh and Durham legislative delegations, were they to unite behind a bill to allow school-related fees in the Triangle, could probably overcome the NCHBA, but that won't happen as long as Republican officials hide their heads in the sand--and the Democrats hide behind the Republicans.
For how that happens, pay attention to the debate in the Raleigh Council over increasing the existing fees. There, Meeker supposedly leads a 6-2 Democratic majority, enough to get the job done without Republicans Craven and Isley--except that Democrats Joyce Kekas, Jessie Taliaferro and James West are dragging their feet, too, leaving only Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson with Hizzoner the Mayor in favor of a substantial fee hike.
The result Tuesday: Inaction. Again.
Craven says don't raise the fees, cut spending. But Stephenson, who was elected on a pro-impact fees platform, counters that whether spending is cut or not, growth generates a need for new roads, new parks and new schools, leaving three choices: 1) Pay for them with higher taxes; 2) Pay for them with higher fees; or 3) Don't pay for them, and let the quality of life deteriorate for everybody.
The Republican plan is, as always, none of the above. Which makes it easy for the Democrats to choose, as is their custom, a little of each, but not enough of anything.