04/27/08 — Chamber asks area legislators 'why' at briefing

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Chamber asks area legislators 'why' at briefing

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 27, 2008 2:02 AM

To state Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, the biggest problem facing North Carolina is not necessarily education, transportation or infrastructure, although all of those are important concerns. Rather, he explained to the members of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce during its legislative briefing session Friday morning, it's a lack of funding to pay for those needs.

"Everybody wants more and more, but nobody wants to pay for it," he said. "This is still the best state and the most well-run state, but to come up here and say I want this and I want that but that you won't vote for any taxes is bad, I think."

Because, he added, to do anything -- to build more roads, to pay teachers more, to improve the state's ports, to invest in technology -- it takes money.

"Somebody's got to have the guts to bring the money in to do what's right for our future," he said.

But in the upcoming short session, which will begin on May 13 and is expected to last six to eight weeks, little action beyond approving the new budget is expected to be taken, though there could be recommendations on education, ethics and mental health, said Burwell Starks, representative for Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston.

Among the questions asked of the legislators Friday were several regarding education.

Specifically, they were asked if they thought the public schools would get their sales tax exemptions, or at least refunds back, whether they thought investments would be made in technology, and how the state's testing program may be changed in the coming years based on the recommendations of several legislative study committees and commissions.

To the first point, Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, explained that the sales tax refunds had been ended to help the state balance its budget last year, but he agreed with Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, that "we really should give it back."

All also agreed that despite a tight budget forecast for the coming fiscal year, all of North Carolina's schools would likely receive some sort of help investing in technology.

But it was the issue of the state's testing program, and whether it's really doing a good job of bringing students up to par and holding teachers accountable that caught the most attention.

"I'd rather hear from the teachers and administrators (than another study commission)," Braxton said. "Testing in my opinion is not the answer. What are students learning?"

The problem, he and Pate agreed, is that having 25 days of testing, whether because of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation or the state's ABCs of Public Instruction program, has taken all spontaneity and creative thinking out of education.

"We've got to put the responsibility for educating our children back at the local level again," Pate said.

But education wasn't the only concern being raised Friday morning.

Questions also were asked regarding the needed reforms of the state Department of Transportation, as well as the need for improved rail access to and from the state ports.

On the former, all the legislators agreed that DOT has become "too politicized."

"Something has to be done and the General Assembly, as the check writer of the state, will get involved," Stark said. "But something may not be done in the short session."

So in the short term, Kerr said, the most important thing is get some sort of representation on the state's transportation board.

Because, Braxton said, new roads need be built and maintained and "us in the East have to be careful we don't get left behind."

To afford do that, though, he noted, the legislature will likely be considering all of its option -- bonds, toll roads and increased license plate and driver's license fees -- because simply halting the transfer of the approximately $175 million from the Highway Trust Fund every year won't be enough.

The state's also going to need to find funding to improve its rail and port systems, Pate said.

The problem, though, Braxton said, is that because of poor planning and an inefficient and ineffective port authority, "we don't have a port really."

But they agreed that if a solution can found to the rail problem in and out of Morehead City, that would be the best option because of its deep-water capabilities. They also noted that the rail line from there already runs through Goldsboro.

Because of that, and because of the push for passenger rail between Wilmington and Raleigh, it's very important that we build up our rails," Pate added.

And finally, Kerr reassured the community that the Cherry Hospital project is "underway."

Construction on the new $145 million facility is expected to begin in March 2009 and be complete by March 2011.

"I feel good about it," he said.

But, he also said that now is the time for the city and county to be discussing what they would like to do with the property.

"We will have a great asset at Cherry," he said. "I've got some ideas for it. I think the Cherry property is going to be very valuable for this county and state."