01/27/09 — Budget deficit will top list for state legislature

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Budget deficit will top list for state legislature

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 27, 2009 2:02 PM

Faced with an estimated budget shortfall this year of nearly $3 billion -- and a much larger one expected next year -- local legislators acknowledge that their ability to address many of the region's needs will likely be limited.

"We all will be challenged with the responsibility of making up this deficit. It's going to be tough, and it's going to take a lot of cooperation on both sides of the aisle," said freshman Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne.

That means, legislators agreed, that issues such as funding for mental health, water and sewer infrastructure, transportation, education and school construction -- all priorities for county commissioners -- are likely to take a back seat to simply making it through the next fiscal year.

"I think this is going to be one of those years we just try to hold on to what we have," said Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir.

Unless, freshman Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, added, the state receives federal stimulus dollars.

"There is potential for that funding to make it into our communities," he said. "With that, though, there are going to be some tough decisions in terms of priorities."

But at the end of the day, Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said, "the budget's going to be the major concern."

And while local legislators believe Gov. Beverly Perdue took the right steps by ordering a 7 percent budget cut earlier this year, they think more still needs to be done.

"What I'm hoping we'll do is go back and take a look at the budget as a whole. My goal is to be able to balance this budget without a tax increase," Braxton said.

He, like others representing Wayne County, are hoping to avoid any tax hikes, including increases on those levied on cigarettes and alcohol -- though Davis said that he would be open to such tax increases, provided they were earmarked for specific purposes.

The county's delegations also are hoping to avoid any more across-the-board cuts.

Instead, said freshman Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, the legislature should focus more on finding and eliminating programs that aren't working.

"I'm hoping we won't keep on doing the same old thing," he said "I think we need to re-invent our government and now would be a good time to start."

And then, he said, perhaps at least a portion of those savings could be transferred into areas of necessity such as public safety and infrastructure development.

"Hopefully we can use those savings to better other areas," Rouzer said.

But while the budget might dictate much of what is done in Raleigh this year, it won't be the only item waiting for legislators.

Also expected to be on their plates is the need to reform annexation rules -- an effort that all of Wayne County's delegates support in one form or another.

"I think there will be some legislative action taken on that," Sager said. "There are some legislators very concerned about that. I think certainly something needs to be done."

A legislative study commission has made one recommendation that annexations be allowed in the future only by the vote of the affected residents.

"I think anybody being annexed ought to have the opportunity to vote on it up or down," Rouzer agreed.

"I'm not sure something like that will pass, but we need to be working toward doing away with involuntary annexations," Braxton added.

Also on the legislative agenda is likely to be a request by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners for counties to be given the option to levy, either by resolution or referendum, new revenue streams such as sales taxes, food taxes, impact fees and real estate transfer taxes.

It's an issue that Sager has lobbied for in the past as a county commissioner -- particularly the sales tax referendum piece.

"Some of the things the association is asking for ... they're asking for more than most legislators will go for," Sager said. "I think if you put it to a vote of the people, I can go along with it. But I don't think they should have the authority to do it without a vote of the people."

Similar sentiments were voiced by Davis -- and by Rouzer, although he was more adamant that local governments ought to be given "the flexibility to pursue whatever means they deem necessary."

Braxton, on the other hand, said he would be leery about increasing local taxing authority.

The overriding budget concerns, though, also are likely to affect any local bills legislators might put forward, though Braxton said he is looking at planning for a regional rail service, as well as a few hunting and trapping issues in both Wayne and Lenoir counties.

Additionally, Bell said he will be working to keep the state pension and retirement funds and health care funds stable, while Sager said he will be looking at issues including increasing flexibility for counties using E-911 funds and the ability of courts to recoup child support payment for time inmates spend in jail.