"Cut to the bone?" State budget has gown four times as fast as population since 1989

Published June 18, 2020

By Brian Balfour

Over the last thirty years, North Carolina’s state budget grew at a rate more than four times the state’s rate of population growth.

Progressives like to selectively cherry-pick the high-water spending mark of 2009 to use as a baseline comparison to current spending levels to make the case that somehow the state budget has been ‘cut to the bone.’

A reminder of long-term spending trends, however, provides a more complete picture.

The state’s General Fund budget grew by a whopping 265 percent from 1989 to 2019. At the same time, the state’s population grew by 62 percent, less than one-fourth the rate of the state budget.

In nominal dollar terms, the state budget grew from $6.6 billion in 1989 to $23.9 billion last year.

After adjusting for inflation, state spending more than doubled during that time, while inflation-adjusted per capita spending grew by 27 percent.

In other words, the amount of real state budget spending per person in North Carolina has grown by more than a fourth since 1989.

In just one generation, North Carolina’s state budget spending, when viewed on a per capita inflation-adjusted basis, has expanded by a full fourth of its previous size.

Moreover, when we look at the long-term trend, it becomes readily apparent how misleading it is for progressives to use 2009 as a baseline comparison. The build up to 2009’s Great Recession was a major outlier even among the already unsustainable trend of state spending growth.

From 2003 to 2009, the state budget exploded by an astounding 49 percent. The rise marked a 29 percent hike even after adjusting for inflation. The recession popped this massive state spending bubble, and new leadership sent to Raleigh by voters in 2010 established a more restrained budget growth path ever since.

When progressives point to 2009 as a baseline comparison, however, they never mention just how extreme the build up in spending was in the several years prior. Attempting to re-inflate the state budget bubble would require crushing tax hikes that would stifle economic growth and put countless  North Carolinians out of work. Low-skilled, low-income households would unquestionably be hardest hit.