03/18/09 — Reaction mixed on Perdue's state spending plan, taxes

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Reaction mixed on Perdue's state spending plan, taxes

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 18, 2009 1:46 PM

Local legislators got their first look at Gov. Beverly Perdue's 2009-10 budget proposal Tuesday and most came away slightly squeamish over the proposed tax increases.

Despite offering cuts in nearly every sector of state government, the governor is still requesting a $1 tax increase per pack of cigarettes and a 5 percent tax surcharge increase on alcohol. She also proposed increasing annual professional licensing fees from $50 to $200.

All three, several Wayne County representatives said, are unacceptable.

"I am absolutely opposed to the new fees and taxes proposed in the budget. We don't need to be increasing taxes on people who are already working two or three jobs to fund the government," said Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston. "In particular, the $1 per pack increase in the excise tax on cigarettes will have a devastating effect on our local economy."

He also predicted that it would lead to a "growing black market with the likely unintended consequence of funding increased gang activity."

He added that he would not support a budget that includes those kinds of tax hikes.

Others also said they could not support the budget in its current form.

"At this time, I wouldn't support any tax increases anywhere," said Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne. "I don't agree with any increases period if there is some way we can cut."

Even Reps. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, and Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said they were disappointed at the proposed increases -- even as they were supportive of other parts.

"It's got some good in it," Braxton said. "It's got some things I can go along with, but the $1 tax increase on cigarettes, I cannot support. I just think this is a bad year to raise taxes. They don't generate that much money in the grand scheme of things. I think we need to tighten our belts. I think we can do what we need to do with the revenue we have."

Bell also was unsure about the increases, saying that if the tobacco farmers in his heavily agricultural district felt they would be hurt by the new tax then he would have to oppose it -- though he did acknowledge that he could go along with the alcohol hike.

The other qualm most of the legislators had was about the governor's use of the federal stimulus dollars.

"Overall it looks good so far. I think she's covered the next two years pretty well. The only question I would have about it is what will we do when the stimulus money is gone, because she is using that to fill the gaps," Bell said.

Rouzer, however, was a bit more cutting in his critique.

"I'd rather take those stimulus dollars that we have control over and put a good part of them in the rainy day fund," he said. "That stimulus money is one-time money."

Overall, though, Braxton and Bell said they were satisfied with the majority of the spending plan.

In particular, Bell said he was pleased with the attention and focus the governor put on education, and Braxton said he was satisfied that the state's mental health system would be sufficiently funded, despite the planned elimination of one 25-bed unit at Cherry.

"I think that's part of their plan to try to get more hospital beds in the community and not in state facilities," he said, explaining that the state is planning to contract with local hospitals to set beds aside for mentally ill patients.

That move, however, he emphasized, is not affecting the planned construction of the new Cherry Hospital, which is scheduled to be fully funded in the new budget.

But, as Bell said, "it's not over yet," as the House and Senate both begin their in-depth looks at the budget during appropriation committee meetings today.

"We'll be getting a chance to see if up close, going over it line item by line item I'm sure," Sager said.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, could not be reached for comment.