06/01/08 — Local legislators weigh in on budget process

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Local legislators weigh in on budget process

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 1, 2008 3:17 AM

With state House representatives planning to have their version of the 2008-09 budget finished by the middle of next week, local legislators say they are in agreement with most of what has been proposed.

"I don't foresee a lot of debate because there's not a whole lot of new stuff in there," Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said.

That, of course, is because the economic downturn has cut the amount of revenue surplus expected next year in half, from more than $300 million to about $150 million.

But, Bell added, "I think that with the limited funds that we have, we've done a pretty good job spreading it across the different areas."

In education -- he and Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, are members of the education appropriations subcommittee -- he explained that the General Assembly "tried to keep most of the programs we already had going."

Beyond that, though, little else was added, save for necessary increases for technology and connectivity and more teachers. Teacher salaries, however, are not likely to increase the 7 percent requested by Gov. Mike Easley. Instead, Bell said he expects that pay raise to be closer in scale to other state employees -- "probably a little more than 2 percent."

One thing the subcommittee did do, though, that has Pate upset, was taking more than $10 million out of the state lottery's reserve fund to help pay for class size reduction.

"I think we've started down the slippery slope of using lottery proceeds to supplant some of our own responsibilities. When the people got the lottery bill passed -- and I've never been a fan of the lottery -- they said it was not going to be used to supplant what the general fund's responsibilities already were," he said. "Now they can come back and say that part of that reserve was for classroom reduction, which is true, but until that reserve is fully built up, we shouldn't take money out of it.

"It'll just take them longer to build it up, and school construction and scholarships and all those other things the lottery was committed for will suffer."

He also was disappointed that they didn't take any steps toward once again relieving local school systems of paying state sales tax like other government entities -- a cost that statewide totals almost $50 million a year.

"I believe we could work out some arrangement so they could be exempt from that. It's the (state) School Board Association's No. 1 priority, and I hope we will (address it) before the budget is finalized," he said.

Other areas of the budget drawing attention from local representatives include mental health reforms -- more money for crisis intervention, substance abuse programs and developmentally delayed housing -- many of which Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, believes will be funded.

"I think some of the programs we talked about we will go ahead with. But I think the money will come from the excess that was spent on community support," he said, explaining that the state is already working to rein in some of the out-of-control claims submitted by rogue providers in recent years. "We're in the process of cutting them off. We're going to make a concerted effort to cut them off and try to get providers who are actually providing good services.

"We're trying to channel some dollars away from things that were being abused and put it where it will help."

One thing the budget will not include is a tax increase, either on cigarettes or alcohol.

"It's a tight budget, but there's no support for any kind of tax increase," Braxton said. "We're just trying to hold the line on spending."

And while the lawmakers can't say for sure how long it will take the Senate to decide on a version and then how long it will take to come to a compromise before sending it to the governor, nobody expects the process to last much past June 30.

"We have worked on this overtime," Bell said. "I think there is a determination in the House to try to get out of there by early July. We want to have that budget in the hands of the Senate early next week. Then they'll have two or three weeks to make their adjustments before we go into conference committee."

Then once that's done, he continued, most of the other bills that have been introduced are likely going to have to wait until next year.