06/22/08 — Local lawmakers weigh in on state budget

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Local lawmakers weigh in on state budget

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 22, 2008 2:01 AM


Assistant News Editor

Now that the state Senate has passed its $21.4 billion version of the 2008-09 spending plan, members of both chambers will take the next week to hash out their differences before sending it along to Gov. Mike Easley for final approval.

Fortunately, said members of the state House, the differences between the two bodies don't appear to be large enough to hinder that process as they try to have the budget finished as close to July 1 and the start of the new fiscal year as possible.

"There are some differences, but I don't think they're major differences," said Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir. "I think we're real close. They're both sound budgets, we just disagree on how to spend the money we have."

The main sticking points are likely to be funding for higher education, children's health insurance, which the House wants to expand and the Senate wants to suspend enrollment in, and the state's debt level.

Of those, Braxton was particularly concerned about the more than $30 million increase in university funding by the Senate.

"The universities have to hold the line just like everyone else. We held the line on everyone. There were no sacred cows," he said.

Other concerns held by Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, included the removal of a property tax exemption for 100 percent disabled veterans by the Senate.

"There are plenty of concerns," he said. "And that's one thing I think that needs to be back in. We've been working for that for several years."

The two chambers, though, did agree on teacher raises (3 percent) and state employee raises (2.75 percent or $1,100, whichever is greater). Both also agreed that more attention needed to be given toward mental health and gang prevention. Perhaps most important, though, both rejected Gov. Mike Ealsey's proposed tax increases on cigarettes and alcohol.

But, Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, noted that the process is only about halfway through and changes are still likely to come.

"We've been talking about this for two months and it's not over yet," he said. "All of this is a little game. We knew what they were going to do and the House knows what we're going to do, and you just come out and try to get a compromise.

"It's kind of like making sausage."

And while he acknowledged that the Senate did provide more money for higher education -- "Traditionally (Senate President Pro Tem) Marc Basnight has been very, very supportive of education, particularly higher education" -- he also noted that several areas of the budget probably could use more money, especially water and sewer, which received about $50 million.

"That's a very important issue and one I've worked on for a long time," he said. "But it's a situation we'll just have to work through."

Unfortunately, he continued, there's just not enough money to meet everybody's needs.

However, Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, blames that on what he considers a bad budget.

"I voted against it," he said. "The first thing is, I think the budget is a product of a corrupt process. It's done behind closed doors without debate, and essence of democracy
is debate."

He was speaking about the decision made by the Democratic leadership to cut off discussion after turning away several Republican amendments and without allowing any Republicans to comment on the 200-page spending plan.

But even more than that, Smith continued, "the budget continues to spend too much money" -- having increased spending 47 percent from $14 billion in 2001 to more than $21 billion today.

"I think it takes too much money from private businesses and families," without fixing the state's problems, he said.

"We still have the 12th highest dropout rate in the nation ... We've got the highest gas tax in the southeast ... this represents a total failure to deal with transportation ... and criminal justice," he said, adding that more attention needs to be given to vocational education, improving infrastructure and reforming the Department of Transporta-tion, and funding the court system.

However, Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, noted, the basic budget outline seems to have strong support in both chambers. And as the necessary committees and subcommittees meet early this week, he expects the approval process to go smoothly.

"Ihaven't read it all except the education pieces. There's not a lot of differences, though. We're going to try for the 30th (of June)," he said. "Hopefully no later than the Fourth of July."