01/21/07 — Senators preparing for session opening

View Archive

Senators preparing for session opening

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 21, 2007 2:00 AM

With the 2007 legislative session starting Wednesday, Wayne County's two state senators are taking fairly opposite views of how the next six to seven months are likely to go.

From the perspective of Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, things are looking to run pretty smooth this year.

The leadership in the Senate -- with Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, likely to be re-elected president pro-tem -- is looking to remain fairly stable, and he's confident that there won't be any problems adjusting to the new leadership in the House, where Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, is likely to win the speaker position.

"This is a great state and I think we're ready to go," Kerr said.

Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johns-ton, is ready to get to work, too, but he said there's not much the Republican minority will actually be able to do.

The Democrats hold a 31 to 29 majority.

"I think we're just going to have more of the same. I think we have a government that is out of touch," Smith said. "Our role as the -- as the English call it -- the loyal minority is just to present ideas we think can help the state."

His primary concern is the state's budget and financial situation.

After last year's more than $2 billion budget surplus, some projections say the state is facing a $1 billion to $2 billion shortfall heading into 2007-08.

"We should have a strategic plan," Smith said. "Last year, we had a $2.8 billion surplus and they used every bit of that up. This year we're looking at a shortfall.

"That's no way to manage the people's money."

But not everybody agrees with those projections. Some, including Kerr, believe the state is running on target and that state leaders spent the surplus wisely last year.

"The state is well-run. It's not a rich state, but we've managed the economy and we've done the right things and we came through that little recession," Kerr said, adding that he was pleased state officials were able to cap Medicaid for a year, raise the salaries of teachers and other state employees and provide additional dollars for education. "It still looks like we'll have a nice surplus to start the year.

"Of course things can change, but it's moving like we thought."

This year, the budget process will begin in the House after Gov. Mike Easley submits his proposal, which will likely be sometime within the next month.

But Kerr and Smith don't disagree on everything. Both feel that something more needs to be done to help relieve the pressure Medicaid is placing on the counties.

"It's really a burden and it takes so much from the local governments," Kerr said. "We're looking at maybe some combination to help the counties with the Medicaid burden. I think we're going to have to do something about it."

That combination, Kerr explained, could include allowing all counties to raise additional revenues through local sales taxes, transfer fees or other means.

Of course, Smith countered, if the Medicaid burden was relieved, then maybe the counties could put some extra funds toward school construction without having to raise additional revenues. He estimated that relieving that burden could save the counties as much as $500 million next year.

"I think that's the No. 1 thing we can do to improve government in the state," he said. "If we took the Medicaid burden off of Wayne County (approximately a $7 million-a-year cost) their bonding capacity could build four or five schools and solve the building problem."

Each senator also has their own areas they want to focus on.

For Smith, it's lowering taxes from what he calls the highest level in the Southeast, toughening the penalties for sexual predators and instilling more fiscal responsibility.

"The list could go on," he said. "We just need to execute the plan better and take better care of the taxpayers.

"Our strength is not in big government, it's in people. We need to be empowering people."

He also plans to help re-introduce the Defense of Marriage Amendment -- the state constitutional ban on gay marriage that has failed to muster enough votes to get on the ballot.

"We're the only state in the Southeast that hasn't given their people the right to vote on that," he said.

For Kerr, the new Cherry Hospital tops the list.

"I think the main thing I want to do is make sure Cherry Hospital stays on track," he said.

He also said he would like to see another bond issued to help deal with water and sewer infrastructure needs across the state, particularly in the eastern region.

"There's a lot more to go," he said. "We need (another bond). Everybody agrees we need it. It's just a question of us having a lot of other needs, too."

Others issues on his list are the need for continued economic development, particularly in the east and the need for a more comprehensive health care system.

"Health care is the real bugaboo," he said. "Something's got to be done."

He also said he's as committed as ever to making sure Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the state's other military installations remain secure, especially as the bombing range in Dare County comes under question once again.

"I think Seymour Johnson is fine as long as we keep that bombing range," he said.

But overall, Kerr continued, he thinks this session will shape up to be a successful one.

"Hopefully we'll be out by sometime late summer," he said. "That is one big problem we've got -- the length of these sessions."