The city’s budget director, Tony McDowell, presented what may have been council’s final legislative update for the year. The ritual reports were added to the Tuesday meetings due to a number of bills wreaking havoc with the city’s attempts to balance its budget. At previous meetings, questions about how long the legislative session was expected to last were treated as some kind of sardonic joke. Now, the General Assembly is expected to finish their business by the end of the week. McDowell wished to thank the city’s Executive Assistant to the Deputy City Manager Alex Carmichael for compiling the updates.
For the first time, nothing was said about the General Assembly’s attempt to redistribute the city’s water system to a regional authority. The city is still holding the legislation, signed by Governor Pat McCrory, at bay with litigation. The bill to create a regional Parks and Cultural Arts Authority was signed into law after municipalities were excluded from participating. Taxpayers were going to pay extra for it either way, but now their contributions will only be helping the county balance its books.
On the bright side, H998 looks like it will pass soon. The bill, which had among its primary sponsors Tim Moffitt and former Army financial analyst John Szoka, is expected to effect real economic development for the state. It proposes simplifying the tax code by eliminating loopholes, and giving everybody more incentive to be productive by lowering personal and corporate income taxes. The Tax Foundation, the group of economists that ranks the economic impact of the fifty states using 118 weighted variables, regards the move highly. One of their representatives said the bill, in one of its legion iterations, would move North Carolina from the 44th slot to the 17th.
As it turned out, what appears to be the final version is making Asheville staff happy as well. The General Assembly indicated the move would be revenue-neutral statewide; but the city was sweating it out to find out whether it would be better than or worse than average. Early versions of the bill led to projections from the city’s budget office of a $1 million shortfall. Now, it looks like the city will be $2-3 million ahead in coming years. McDowell referred to this as “a significant victory.”
H568, which would de-annex the Asheville Airport seemed to be losing steam. It had been treated like a done-deal. Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had been informed that it was the General Assembly’s intention to pass the bill. If they don’t get around to doing it this session, it will be frozen and thawed out for passage during the short session.
Another piece of sitting-duck legislation is H708. The bill is somewhat like a Sullivan Act for the entire state, as it would outlaw all transfers of enterprise fund revenue to the general funds of local governments. With its passage, budget staff has estimated Asheville’s general fund would be negatively impacted by about $600,000. The amount represents parking revenues that have traditionally been used to subsidize transit.
Of most interest to council was H94/S112. This bill would automatically grandfather-in any and all billboards, “even if they’re nonconforming and lying on the ground,” added McDowell. Furthermore, the bill would allow no municipal billboard ordinance to be more stringent than state standards. Mayor Terry Bellamy asked if the bill would override the city’s new electronic billboard prohibition. City Attorney Martha McGlohon indicated, with disclaimers, that probably would be the case. She also pointed out that the fines the city collects from owners of nonconforming billboards would henceforth go into the Civil Penalty and Forfeiture Fund. The city has been directing collections into the general fund. Fines for a single noncompliant billboard could run between $5000 and $16,000.
The Bigger Picture –
In spite of a host of what many view to be attacks against Asheville or attacks against Democrat strongholds statewide, the General Assembly managed to take actions on a number of reforms advocated by fiscally-conservative think tanks as promoting a healthy economy. Whereas the legislature lowered personal and corporate income taxes, John Hood of the John Locke Foundation would like to see the corporate income tax eliminated altogether. It is a double-taxation that discourages productivity. Advocates of the Fair Tax or the more straightforward USA Tax would like to see the personal income tax replaced wholly by a consumption tax. Low or zero income taxes are strongly correlated with robust economies in comparisons of the fifty states.
Other changes the John Locke Foundation and other conservative groups will be pushing for from future legislative sessions include limiting the amount of time the General Assembly is convened. Georgia’s state legislature meets only 40 days per year; Florida’s, 60; and Virginia’s, 60 one year and 30 the next. Some states control sessions with a calendar, and others just cut off pay after a certain number of days. Reform would jibe with Mark Twain’s, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”
The state could also undergo organizational restructuring at the top. Most states fare just as well or better with only four executive officers. North Carolina has ten, and several voters don’t even take a stab at state offices below the rank of governor. The state also has a reputation for having ungainly and redundant departments of education and transportation. North Carolina’s centralized administrative overhead has been referred to as “No Bureaucrat Left Behind.” Another target for reform would be all the state agencies in which political appointees exercise executive and judicial powers.