Justin Guillory, Think NC First Executive Director
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that North Carolina moved past Michigan to become the ninth-most populous state in the nation. This is certainly a reason to be proud: If people want to come to our state, we must be doing something right. But for state lawmakers and Gov. McCrory, the 95,407 new residents that came in the last year shouldn’t be a reason for them to rest on their laurels. Instead, it should be a wake-up call.
First, North Carolina’s explosive growth has nothing to do with recent policy shifts—not even tax cuts. North Carolina has been one of the fastest growing states for decades. In the 90s, the Tar Heel State was 11th in population growth; by the 2000s, we were 6th.
For the most part, the biggest factors contributing to our population growth are outside of the government’s control. They’re the same reasons why many Sunbelt states have seen rapid growth—warm climate and low cost of living (that does include low taxes, but low housing costs are a bigger factor).
Population growth is both a blessing and a curse. New residents expand economic growth, fueling the construction and real estate industries and creating new jobs. But growth also increases demand for government services. So the challenge for state lawmakers is how to cope with explosive growth, provide effective government services and protect and improve the quality of life we currently enjoy.
Unfortunately, population growth seems to be a reality that state lawmakers don’t want to face. For the last four years, the Republican-led General Assembly has focused on lowering taxes and cutting the size of government in the name of economic growth.
Meanwhile, our rising population means that more students are filling our public schools, more cars are clogging our highways, and more businesses need service and regulation.
Fast growth is something we should expect for some time, and the solutions to growing pains are often long-term and systemic. There’s no quick fix to funding our $50 billion transportation wish-list, for example.
North Carolina needs a pro-active government to plan, prepare and invest in our bigger, more crowded future.
Population growth isn’t just a state issue, but a local one. State leaders need to recognize that urban counties need flexibility to meet demands without being held back by state government, and rural counties need extra help before they are left behind. A state with a dramatic gap between rich and poor areas is much harder to govern.
Unfortunately, providing local authorities more tools to deal with growth also seems anathema to the current state leadership. This past session, the elimination of the business license tax, without finding a replacement, leaves municipalities with fewer resources to provide infrastructure to support a growing number of businesses.
North Carolina is growing, yet our collective capacity to support that growth is shrinking.
Gov. McCrory got it right: In his statement on the Census news, the Governor said, “People want to live in a place where they can fulfill their potential. And for an increasing number of Americans and people throughout the world, that place is North Carolina.”
The question now is—Will Gov. McCrory and the General Assembly take steps this session to prepare North Carolina to be the kind of place where millions of future North Carolinians can fulfill their potential, or are we going to see more of the same destructive slash and burn?