Taxes, Energy and Midnight Antics

By John Ager

The 2017 “Long Session” finished at 2 am Friday morning, June 30th. It was one of the shortest “Long Sessions” in recent memory; by contrast, two years ago it lasted through September. We adjourned, however, with orders to return for two special sessions, one on August 3rd and one on September 6th. The unfinished business includes drawing the new state House and Senate districts, as ordered by the court, and some vetoes by Governor Cooper that will come back for override votes. The September session will discuss possible amendments to the North Carolina constitution. So, enjoy the rest of your summer knowing that there is little time for mischief in Raleigh!

When I am speaking to a group, I emphasize two issues that I think are monumental in the future of North Carolina and the USA: climate change and the growth of income inequality. As the destructive forces of these two problems play out in the future, people will wonder why our leaders chose to ignore the gathering storm clouds. I do not want to be one of those leaders.

For the past 30 years, income inequality has been growing in our state and country. The rich have been getting richer, because the value of assets has been growing faster than wages. To a large degree, the problem is occurring because of strong economic forces like globalization, automation and loss of factory jobs. These trends are likely to continue. North Carolina State economist Michael Walden has just published a book showing that our state has been hit particularly hard by the loss of middle-class jobs.

No country in the history of the world has benefitted from the fruits of capitalism more than the U.S. The role of government is to both promote the creation of wealth for our citizens and to referee the competition. Raw capitalism turns workers into a commodity. Government needs to provide opportunity through education and infrastructure. We have to have the vision to turn all medical and technical advances of our time to the benefit of all of our people, not just the wealthy — North Carolina has always been the state of the common man, where we all do better when we all do better!

Current tax and policy decisions in Raleigh have actually made income inequality worse. Cutting income taxes for the wealthy has been ongoing for the past six years, and the same is true for corporate taxes. At the same time, sales taxes have been increased. All in all, North Carolina gave away billions of dollars that could have been budgeted for teacher pay, road building and medical support for our people. Our state is growing in population and so are our expenses. Most of the economic growth is occurring in a few urban counties that need new schools and transportation, while at the same time our rural areas desperately need investments to remain fiscally viable. The legislative staff just completed an analysis of the latest round of tax cuts, most of which will occur in the next fiscal year. The results were a sobering reminder that you get what you pay for.

Climate change is not a political question but a scientific fact, as is the contribution made to this change by so much carbon being dumped into the atmosphere. It was not too long ago that we could count on the natural world to be so grand that it was beyond the effect of human life on the planet, but that has changed. The natural world of our mountains, truly a source of inspiration, was a constant reminder of our Creator; now, tending to our planet is the responsibility of all of us, and we need our government to take the lead.

Renewable energy sources have become more reliable and less expensive, beyond what I would have predicted, and that is especially true for solar energy. In Raleigh and across the country, there is a fierce battle between new, renewable energy sources and the fossil fuel interests. Coal is being priced out of the market by natural gas, which burns more cleanly but releases carbon at the fracking sites. The Atlantic pipeline project, costing billions, will bring natural gas into North Carolina from the shale fields where it is produced. With all of the coal ash problems, natural gas will serve as a bridge fuel to keep the lights on.

However, solar and wind power will be at the other end of the bridge. We have in the east and off the coast perhaps the best potential for wind in the U.S. However, in 2015 fossil fuel interests took away our state’s solar tax credit, which had helped to make North Carolina #2 in the nation (behind California) in this field.

One of the last bills to pass, after midnight, was a solar bill. It was a model of good legislation, vetted over months by many different interests including Duke Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund and a solar interest group. When it passed the House, I voted for it. But in the Senate, Harry Brown, who has a vendetta against wind power, tried to place a 4-year moratorium on wind projects in North Carolina, despite two large economically viable projects on the verge of being implemented. Late night negotiations scaled the moratorium back to 18 months, but I was upset with the efforts of one senator to obstruct this bill, and I voted no. The governor has vetoed it, and perhaps there will be some cooler heads to take out this last-minute, unnecessary moratorium and constraint of a better energy future.

Please remember how precious our energy sources are, and as always, I thank you for the chance to serve you in Raleigh.

Rep. John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives

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