Lincolnton residents face a staggering state and local government true debt burden equivalent to $9,900 for every man, woman and child – or roughly $39,700 for a family of four.
This amount, calculated in a report by Raleigh’s Civitas Institute, reflects each Lincolnton citizen’s share of the total debt and unfunded liabilities accrued by the City of Lincolnton, Lincoln County and the State of North Carolina. (The report is available at www.nccivitas.org.)
Because of the unsustainable levels of debt and benefit obligations amassed by state and local lawmakers, Lincolnton’s economy is staring at a future of higher taxes and restricted economic growth.
The government debt represents bonds issued to finance public buildings and projects. The unfunded liabilities represent the present value of already accrued retirement health benefit obligations owed to eligible current and former state and local government employees.
At the local level, Lincolnton taxpayers are facing $228 million in debt and unfunded obligations.
The total figure includes:
- $227 million in debt
- Lincolnton City Government: $35 million
- Lincoln County Government: $192 million
- $757,000 in unfunded retiree health benefit obligations for Lincoln County government
Add to that another $9.4 billion in state debt, $29 billion in state unfunded retiree health benefit obligations and $925 million in funds North Carolina borrowed from the federal government in order to fulfill unemployment insurance obligations, and one quickly realizes it’s not just the national debt that should concern us.
All debt totals include principle plus interest payments of current debt, calculated as of June 30, 2008 (the latest comprehensive data available); and unfunded liabilities are calculated as of Dec. 31, 2007.
With that said, why is government debt important?
Picture the government’s debt as a massive credit card bill that must be paid off by taxpayers. Workers’ wages need not only to support themselves and their family, but also a portion will be required to pay off the government’s charge card. In short, the government’s debt represents a claim over the future earnings of Lincolnton workers.
At an average burden of $39,700, state and local government debt adds a financial liability equivalent to the price of a brand new Ford Mustang GT convertible to each Lincolnton family of four’s budget.
Furthermore, because government debt and liabilities represent inevitable tax increases, they serve as a de facto lien on the productive value of property and capital equipment. Entrepreneurs evaluate the worthiness of such investments based on their anticipated after-tax return. As such, expected higher future tax rates will depress the value of these resources and cause entrepreneurs to refrain from productive investment. The result is slower job and income growth than otherwise would have occurred.
Repayment of state and local government debt also represents a transfer of wealth from the private sector to the government. Private sector wealth that could have been used for productive investment (i.e. toward future job growth and income gains) is consumed by non-productive government debt service.
In sum, state and local debt represents countless factories that will not be built, businesses not started, and jobs never created in the future.
Taxpayers and workers will bear the brunt of politicians’ short-sighted spending binges with a lower standard of living.
The time for spending reform from the state down to local levels in North Carolina is now. Delaying action will only make the inevitable day of reckoning even more painful.