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Fri August 13, 2004
Dredging through an election year issue.
By James Leutze
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Dr. Leutze's commentary.]
This election season will be filled with talk about taxes ? with some touting the cuts they?ve made and opponents bemoaning the deficits the cuts have caused. There is another, less fiscal, aspect of the debate. But cutting taxes is also about reducing the size of government ? something almost everyone applauds ? until they need something like social security or down here, disaster relief. Though seldom put this way, cutting taxes also means cutting services. So while we are celebrating our good fortune resulting from our $300 rebate and lower federal taxes, let me offer a sobering insight.
The President?s budget for 2005 has no money for dredging the intracoastal waterway. By strenuous effort, Representative Mike McIntyre has managed to put together a coalition of coastal representatives who are working to include $3 million in the Corps of Engineers budget for this dredging. The cost for maintaining the ICW at its stipulated depth would be $11 million; $3 million will barely keep the ditch as it is, which in some cases means three feet.
Now full disclosure requires that I admit to having a boat and to using the ICW ? but my boat only draws 18-inches, so I?m safe for awhile. However, there is a much larger issue here. The economic value to North Carolina of having a functional ICW is huge. Tourism is now North Carolina?s largest industry employing more than 180,000 people. Those people deal directly with our visitors, but many, many more benefit from the revenue brought in by those tourists. Beaches account for 15% of the $12.6 billion spent by tourists while outdoor activity accounts for another 15%. Much of that outdoor activity centers around the ICW and many people move back and forth from the beach to the waterway. If you doubt me, go down to the Wrightsville boat ramp on any weekend. While there, glance right or left to see the boats, the homes, the restaurants that line the water. Our boat builders, salesrooms and marinas sell over $500 million worth of boats, motors and services, not to mention the commercial and recreational fishermen who use this vital highway.
The problem is two fold. The federal government judges the value of the waterway by the number of barges that use it. Yet the shallower it gets, the less the barges can use it. It is past time for the Congress to take account of the economic impact of the waterway on the lives of people who live and visit here.
This then brings us back to taxes. Services like dredging the waterway are tied to revenue. For those who say they want ?government off our back,? cutting taxes is a double whammy; it shrinks government and provides an easy answer when someone, in this case us, wants something. ?Sorry, we don?t have the money? sounds so much more defensible than, ?we don?t want to do it.?
Dr. James Leutze is Chancellor Emeritus at UNCW.