This year’s elections did more than highlight the political partisanship that exists nationally and across the state - it also exposed a growing urban-rural divide that poses a real threat to equal services statewide.
Reporter Andrew Carter of the News & Observer noted in a November 9 article that “two versions of North Carolina revealed themselves” in the presidential vote tallies. He quotes Steven Green an N.C. State political science professor who said, “The Trump counties got more Trump, which are the rural counties. The urban counties, the blue counties, got more Biden, more Democratic.”
While Mr. Carter’s story was focused on the partisan divide in the state, it also brought to the surface a more important issue for state politics in the coming year - a growing division between the less populated and less wealthy rural counties and the wealthier, more populous urban counties. The contrast is significant and portends serious challenges for rural counties in the upcoming legislative session and for all the sessions in the next decade.
As the state’s population has increased, resulting in North Carolina now being the tenth most populous state in the country, most of that growth has been concentrated in the urban markets. That is where jobs are most plentiful and subsequently where most of the cultural amenities such as museums and entertainment facilities are located, which in turn attract new residents. All of this growth has required additional public services that have been supported through municipal, county and state funding.
The population growth in these urban centers has naturally resulted in increased legislative representation and now five counties, Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Guilford, and Forsyth represent over 30 per cent of the members of both chambers.
The voting power of these five counties with the added support of surrounding counties should concern rural counties, particularly those counties in the eastern and western regions of the state as we prepare for the 2021 legislative session and beyond.
When legislators return to Raleigh they will most likely face a budget deficit, something the General Assembly hasn’t seen in over a decade of conservative fiscal management. This potential deficit compounded by needed investments to maintain various departments such as the Department of Transportation, to name just one, will require establishment of priorities that will impact current state programs such as highway construction and county budgets.
If Governor Cooper is willing to compromise with the legislature there is a possibility that the state can work its way out of a deficit hole and continue to fund needed public services with a modicum of discomfort all citizens. But because the political divide is so significant as Carter’s article described, and because the governor has a track record of leveraging political divisions, there is doubt the governor will provide the leadership for a coordinated bipartisan solution.
If the governor, a Democrat, remains intransigent in dealing with the Republican-led legislature then solutions to the financial difficulties will be made on a partisan and regional basis. Harkening back to Professor Green’s observations that the urban markets have become more Democrat, raises the specter of the legislators representing those counties working to control more of the state funding at the cost of the rural, more Republican, counties.
Proximity to power, particularly political power, is a determining factor when it comes to gaining support for local issues. There is no question that the urban counties will be first at the trough when it comes to funding projects with the limited state dollars available. Then, with the aid of urban legislators, it is not unreasonable to expect the lion’s share of the remaining discretionary state funds will be doled out according to politics and proximity. Those counties that are closest to these urban markets will gain greater sympathy from the urban legislators for state funded programs. On the flip side, those rural counties geographically distant from the metro markets may find legislative support for local issues lacking or non-existent.
Legislators representing the state’s rural counties need to take note of the growing urban-rural divide regardless of party politics. In addition to the biennial budget, the legislature will be tackling redistricting as a result of the just concluded 2020 census. This will most likely result in the state’s urban markets gaining even more political clout in the decade ahead, further diminishing the clout and voice of rural counties.
To maintain any semblance of influence for their constituents, rural legislators will need to present a consolidated front, working together as the state tackles financial issues that will have few easy answers and will require hard - very hard - decisions.