07/09/08 — 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 July 9, 2008 1:47 PM

It's not a perfect budget, local lawmakers said as they cast their final votes on the state's new $21.4 billion spending plan Wednesday, but for most of them, it was a fair compromise.

"I held my nose as I voted for it," Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said. "But I guess the good just slightly outweighed the bad things. I had a tough decision over the weekend about what to do."

His biggest complaint was the more than $800 million in new capital spending debt that the budget authorizes for universities and prisons -- much through certificates of participation, which carry a higher interest rate than bonds and don't require voter approval.

"I know it's necessary because we've got to grow because of the growth in population, but I think it would have been better if it'd gone to a referendum because the people are going to be the ones paying for it."

He also voiced a bit of concern about the effect it might have on future financial flexibility.

"We're going to be fairly strapped for cash in the next long session, I think," he said.

But, Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said even though he, too, is "concerned about the amount of debt," he thinks this budget does "a lot of good things."

Not the least of which, he continued, is $100 million for water and sewer grants for the Rural Center and funding for more teachers, new dropout prevention programs and fuel assistance for schools.

Other line items included in that list of "good things" are the diversion of $14.2 million more in lottery funds for school construction, a 3 percent raise for teachers and a 2.75 percent or $1,100, whichever is greater, raise for state employees.

Braxton said he also was pleased with the state's efforts on mental health -- using money formally being "wasted" on community support programs to add more crisis management teams and enhance substance abuse programs.

"I think we probably didn't do all we need to do, but I think it came out pretty good," he said.

However, not everybody, including Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, who voted against the spending plan, thinks the final budget, which increases spending by about 3.4 percent, was a good idea.

"They're spending too much money. And not only are they spending too much money, but our priorities are all wrong," he said.

One example, he contended, is the funding for dropout prevention programs -- programs he said aren't proven effective. He believes a better alternative would have been increased funding for vocational education programs.

"I just think there were better uses of the money and that we should have been more conservative," Smith said.

But he was in the minority.

"I thought it was a bold step to try and make sure North Carolina remains the best run state in the country," Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, said. "People can talk about it being too much money, but I think we'll be OK on the money.

"You've just got to have faith and try to make it better for our children, and I think that's what we've done."

Now the spending plan will go to Gov. Mike Easley's desk where legislators are hopeful he'll sign it, despite it falling short of his goals for teacher salaries and More at Four funding. It also does not include his proposed tax increases on alcohol and cigarettes.

"I think overall, it came out pretty good," said Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, a member of the House leadership team. "I hope (Easley) will sign it. I think it's the best we can get."

Easley has 10 days to sign or veto the bill. Once he does, the legislature can begin the process of wrapping up the short session -- something many members hope to do by the end of next week.

"We can't adjourn until he signs the budget. Once he does, there might be some bills scattered out there, but people are ready to go home," Bell said.