07/15/07 — Medicaid chief topic at legislative breakfast

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Medicaid chief topic at legislative breakfast

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 15, 2007 2:02 AM

As expected, Medicaid, school construction and the need for more water and sewer infrastructure were at the top of the agenda during the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's legislative breakfast Friday morning at the Goldsboro Country Club.

Running close behind those were hard questions about involuntary annexation laws, the future of state research farms, the possibility of Wayne County getting a regional agriculture center and the need to repair the rail line between Wallace and Castle Hayne.

But almost every conversation still seemed to come back to the need for the state to take the Medicaid burden away from North Carolina's 100 counties.

"It's a growing cost. I think the important thing is to get Medicaid off the backs of the counties," Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said.

Statewide, the counties' share of the Medicaid burden is estimated to be more than $500 million this year. In Wayne County it's approximately $8.4 million, and is one of the primary reasons given for the county commission's 2.9-cent tax increase.

Currently, the decision about how to remove the burden is in the hands of the House after the Senate approved a bill Thursday afternoon that would allow the state to take on the counties' portion of the Medicaid costs, while also withholding a half-cent of the local portion of the sales tax to help pay for the added expense. Cities receiving part of that sales tax will be held harmless.

"We hope the House will take this thing. We amended one of their bills, so all they've got to do is vote on it one time," Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, said. "All these lobbyists have agreed it's a good project. This gives them what I think they want. It'll solve a lot of problems."

Burwell Stark, a legislative assistant for Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, added that based on their numbers, Wayne County would come out ahead under the current plan.

It does not, however, allow counties the option to levy their own sales tax or land transfer fees -- something House Democratic leaders have said is necessary.

Still, Braxton said that he doesn't necessarily think that would be a deal-breaker, and Kerr left open the possibility of that county taxing authority could be re-inserted.

Once Medicaid is solved, though, counties should have more flexibility to deal with school construction issues.

"If Medicaid relief was enacted right now, I think it would be 17 cents on the 100 in tax savings (in Wayne County)," Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said. "That's going to make a huge difference to the county's budget."

But he also thinks there's a good chance that state bond referendums for school and water and sewer construction will both end up on November's ballot.

And with more hundreds of people moving to North Carolina every day, Kerr emphasized, that infrastructure is sorely needed.

In the agriculture community, much of the concern centered around the future of Cherry Research Farm and how it might be affected by a proposal to put all state research farms under the control N.C. State University -- something none of the legislators support, and all think is unlikely.

"Cherry Farm, I believe, will be fine," Kerr said.

He also noted that progress is being made toward building the Wayne County Regional Agriculture Center.

Included in this year's budget is a proposal to acquire land for the project at Cherry Farm, but no funding for the actual building yet.

Pate did say that Wayne County and Goldsboro should contribute and that other funding sources, such as the Golden LEAF Foundation, the USDA's Rural Development Center and low interest loans, should be considered.

"It's tough to get funding for these projects. For the county and city to put some money in this, that would make it look better," Braxton explained.

But the item that caused possibly the most heated discussion, was the re-establishment of the 22 miles of missing rail link between Wallace and Castle Hayne.

Right now, Pate said, only 2 percent of all freight shipping comes through North Carolina's ports. But if the rail line was re-established, he continued, that could help open up the port at Wilmington.

He estimated the price tag of such a project to be about $80 million, but said they're hoping the federal government will be able to help pay.

Kerr, on the other hand, said he felt too much attention was being paid to such a long-shot project, noting that a new shipping hub is planned for Charlotte and that there are many environmental issues involved.

"You can't have everything. North Carolina can't have everything -- unless we're willing to pay for it," Kerr said.