Conservative anti-tax groups are not serving North Carolinians well with their no-tax-increase pledge drives. The groups bully legislators into promising not to raise taxes and then appropriate for themselves the right to decide what is a tax increase.

In short, they are stealing from the broad base of North Carolina voters the right to be represented by people who stood for election, not by political operatives who stand on the sidelines.

The so-called Citizens for a Sound Economy group says that it has no-tax-increase pledges from 47 representatives and 20 senators. It has just recently ruled that any vote to extend the half-cent sales tax that is scheduled to expire on July 1 will be a tax increase and therefore a violation of the pledge. No one elected CSE to make such determinations, and any legislators who signed the pledge in advance did so either out of ignorance or timidity.

The voters cannot all crowd into the Legislative Building in Raleigh to vote on issues of statewide concern. So the representative system calls for the election of legislators who carefully weigh all of the evidence and then vote. They consider the state’s needs, its revenues and its spending. Only then should representatives decide whether they will vote for or against any particular tax measure.

In the past, the CSE has declared that loophole closings and other means of making the tax system fairer are tax increases. It then flexed its muscles in an attempt to scare legislators away from supporting the changes. Legislators cannot allow that to happen this year. With a budget shortfall that could balloon to $2.4 billion, there will be serious strains placed on the state’s ability to educate its children, treat its mentally ill and provide health care for its poor. Will North Carolina be able to claim a “sound economy” if class sizes must grow because new teachers can’t be hired? Will the state have a sound economy if the mentally ill are roaming the streets untreated or if the uninsured poor flood emergency room, where hospitals will have to bear the costs of treating them?

No, that will not be a sound economy. It will be a deterioration in the quality of life that all North Carolinians enjoy. Legislators face a monstrous job over the next eight months. If they can allow the sales tax to revert by one-half cent, that would be great. The sales tax is a regressive tax that falls most heavily on the poor and consumers.

But the revenue that tax generates is essential to maintaining core state services. With the no-new-taxes pledge, legislators have committed themselves not only to voting against the sales tax exemption but also to voting against any other new tax that might replace that lost income. Tax pledges carry power only if citizens pay attention to them. For the good of the state, all North Carolinians, including the legislators who made the pledges, should ignore CSE and its associates.

LOAD-DATE: April 7, 2003