06/13/06 — Legislators talk money with leaders

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Legislators talk money with leaders

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on June 13, 2006 1:47 PM

Legislators talked money with local government leaders during a briefing Monday morning at the Goldsboro Country Club.

Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, Sen. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, and a representative from the staff of Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, discussed a variety of topics city, county and state employees. Many involved money and legislative efforts to help local governments keep their tax rates down.

Each representative discussed how the cost of Medicaid coverage has continued to increase over the past several years, creating an increased burden on local budgets.

In Wayne County, more than 9 percent of the county's budget is used to pay its mandated share of Medicaid -- an estimated $7.5 million in the coming year.

Pate noted that North Carolina is the only state that requires local governments to help with all Medicaid services.

"We have to do something about county Medicaid payments. If we eliminated it, it would knock off 14 cents off the tax rate in Wayne County. We need to cap Medicaid costs this year. We are the only state in the Union that has the counties pay the costs," Pate said.

A House budget proposal last week suggested permanently capping county Medicaid costs to this year's rate and providing a one-time monetary relief to counties with the largest Medicaid burden. The state would set aside a one-time amount of $35 million to be divided among the counties.

The legislators also talked about an anticipated pay raise for state employees.

Pate said state employees would receive a five percent salary increase and a $300 one-time bonus, while community college teachers would receive a two percent one-time bonus and a six percent salary increase.

Pate said he hopes a pay increase keeps teachers in local classrooms, since many continuously leave for another district or "burnout" and quit.

"We have got to find what drives the teacher out of the classroom within five years of starting? Determine that on a local level and we can begin to fix the problems. The brightest and best students should be the ones in class teaching our children and grandchildren," Pate said.

North Carolina universities and colleges are graduating about 6,300 future teachers a year, but the state needs about 12,000 year to keep teachers in the classroom, Wayne Public Schools Board member Rick Pridgen said.

Bell said he talked to a recently retired teacher who said no amount of money would get her to return to the classroom. Contributing factors to the teacher's decision were the children's discipline level compared to previous generations and the increased class size, Bell said.

Some aspects of education could be improved with money from the state lottery, but LaRoque said the counties might not get as much as they deserve.

"The lottery bill that was in the House -- the one we voted for is not the one in effect. We passed one that was good for education. It was going to help build schools, improve education and provide scholarships," LaRoque said.

Once the bill was changed, a larger percentage went to early childhood development instead of scholarships and school construction. The only way to ensure more money is provided toward improving education is through a constitutional amendment, LaRoque said.

"We have to protect where it goes. Otherwise it's just going to get siphoned off," he said.

Several lawmakers disagreed about the use of highway money. The disagreement followed party lines.

Republicans Pate and LaRoque said legislative leaders had taken money from the state Highway Trust Fund to use for other purposes, while needed road improvements went lacking.

Democrat Kerr said the state had to use money out of the highway fund when it was broke, and Bell said it is returning $300 million to the fund this year.

"Nobody wants new taxes, but they want more roads," Kerr said. "We're not doing anything dishonest with the trust fund. People are piling into this state because we have low taxes, a good climate and all kinds of other reasons. You pay taxes to pay for the freedoms you enjoy. If you don't like someone up there (in Raleigh), then vote them out, but don't say you're being robbed," Kerr said.

Lawmakers also talked about the General Assembly itself and the need to address problems arising from allegations of campaign fund-raising improprieties.

Bell said he is one of 23 legislators that co-sponsored a bill that proposes restricting gifts and contributions by lobbyists to legislators. The proposal would ban gifts to legislators from lobbyists, lobbyists from providing campaign contributions and would require legislators wait one year after leaving office before becoming a lobbyist.

"We have been working on it and we've been encouraged by the people to change it. It's not done yet, but you will see some major changes," Bell said.