WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

More autonomy for counties gives more power to the people

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North Carolina isn’t an especially welcoming or happy place for independent-minded municipal officials. The Old North State’s founders wrote a constitution that makes it clear that all the counties, cities and towns are shackled to the state, and especially to the General Assembly. The municipalities have to spend a lot of time asking, “May !?”

The cities and counties are bound by a strict set of rules, and while they pass their own ordinances and appropriate their own budgets, a lot of what they do is subject to state approval. Want to build a new hospital? Go get a state certificate of need, after you prove you really need one. Want to change your city’s charter? Ask the General Assembly — which may end up making more changes than you really wanted.

Fayetteville felt that bite a few years ago when the city passed a rental ordinance aimed at forcing slumlords to clean up their act. That drew the wrath of several lawmakers (it’s unclear if they were in the slumlord business themselves or just friends with some), who persuaded fellow legislators to kill Fayetteville’s rental-oversight plan. Or consider what happened to involuntary annexation, which Fayetteville wielded like a club for many years, including in the “Big Bang” annexation that brought thousands of new households, kicking and screaming, into the city’s jurisdiction.

The Big Bang became the poster child for the General Assembly’s near-total dismantling of forced-annexation legislation. And consider what happened when the Charlotte City Council had the audacity to pass a city civil-rights ordinance — one that, gasp, even protected gay and transgender people from discrimination. That brought us the “Bathroom Bill,” a legislative nightmare that haunts the state to this day and has lost North Carolina billions of tourist and economic-development dollars as groups and companies have ditched plans that involved our state.

So even a minor excursion away from legislative authoritarianism is reason for optimism and relief. We saw such a sign last week, when House lawmakers approved — by a large, bipartisan margin — legislation that would give counties more choices in how they can spend money raised when voters approve a hike in the local sales tax. Sales taxes are capped at 7 percent in most counties across the state, although the law allows an additional quarter cent for transit systems if voters approve. Only four counties — Durham, Mecklenburg, Orange and Wake — have ever used the transit provision.

But the legislation that the House sent over to the Senate last week would allow county voters to approve that extra quarter cent and use it for school construction, teacher salary supplements — or really, any purpose that commissioners and voters agree may be necessary. Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln Republican who’s a co-sponsor of the measure, told a WRAL reporter that, “This would allow counties to do what they need to do in terms of projects and things that they know is important, whether it’s education or other things. It gives them more tools to work with, to better manage.”

More tools? What a great concept. Yes, most counties could use those additional tools. That certainly includes Cumberland, where county leaders are trying to figure out how they can deal with a school board request for additional millions in the school budget. At the same time, they’re also pondering ways to finance a performing-arts center downtown. An extra quarter cent is a small thing for shoppers but it could be huge for commissioners who are trying to tackle some big and urgent projects.

We don’t know if this is a one-time deviation from the state-as-unquestioned-leader principle, or if it tells us the legislature is willing to share a bit more power. Whichever it is, it’s a welcome change and we hope the Senate concurs.

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