03/11/09 — Legislators: Show us how not to cut without tax hike

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Legislators: Show us how not to cut without tax hike

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 11, 2009 1:46 PM

Legislators representing Wayne County had mixed reactions to Gov. Beverly Perdue's State of the State address Monday night, but most agreed that it set the tone for what they expect to be a much smaller budget than the last $21 billion measure approved by the General Assembly.

"I think it was a good speech -- a rallying cry, a call for us to work together to make the cuts we need to make to make government more efficient and not increase taxes," Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said.

The speech, which was the governor's first address to the Legislature since being elected in November, focused on what she plans to do to address the state's current economic situation and the $3 billion shortfall in the state budget.

Now, legislators said, it's just a matter of waiting for her to release her official budget proposal.

"I didn't hear too many details, but I think she set the stage for what her budget's going to look like -- that there will be cuts," Braxton said. "And I think basically her cuts will be across the board -- tell department heads to cut a certain amount and let them decide what they can do without. We'll just have to wait and see."

And while Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, added he is hopeful the governor will take a hard look to make sure no agencies are wasting money by duplicating efforts, there is one area the governor pledged not to touch -- education.

In fact, Mrs. Perdue promised to increase per-pupil spending in her new budget.

"I want to see how she's proposing to do that," Sager said. "We aren't in a position to increase anything at this point. You've got to find a place to save money before you can spend more."

And that, said Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, is exactly the problem.

"If you're going to just set aside 60 percent of the budget -- about what education is -- essentially what that means is you're going to have to raise taxes to balance the budget at the end of the day," he said. "And I'm not going to support any type of tax increase."

The only other option, he added, would be to cut deeply into other essential programs.

Either way, he continued, he was not enthusiastic to hear Mrs. Perdue pledge to increase per-student funding.

"I don't view education as the sacred cow you shouldn't touch," he said.

Rather, both he and Sager -- who also said he would not support a tax increase -- agreed that there are issues, such as increasing minimum class sizes and instituting teacher merit pay, which could make education spending more cost efficient.

"Everybody knows money is not the sole ingredient in a successful education," Rouzer said. "Throwing money after money ... money is not the end-all."

Rather, he said, he would hope Mrs. Perdue would take advantage of the current economic and budget situation to bring state spending back in line.

"I think we've got to look at the budget in the context of the economy," he said. "The budget we have in place right now is clearly unsustainable."

However, Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said, if they are able to keep education funding at the same level as this year, he'd "feel good doing that."

"I would be happy if we could just not cut anything in education spending," he said.

Still, Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, agreed that a push for more education spending is a good idea.

"I think it's ambitious," he said. "I don't think anybody knows 100 percent what's going to happen, but she gave her overall vision of how it's going to work, including the need to invest in our children."

And that, he said, will help pull North Carolina out of the current slump and help shield it from future ones.

"Clearly the investment in education has led to the (current) diversification in our economy and our jobs," Davis said. "Investing in education will help create that innovative spirit to create new opportunities in a global economy."

Because ultimately, he added, the goal is to "keep the people of North Carolina working."

But, with the Senate going first this year in developing a response to the governor's budget, nobody expects Mrs. Perdue's proposal to be the final word.

"The final budget will not be like her budget," Braxton said. "It will be the consensus of the House and Senate and the governor, and that could be good or bad, but it will be different."