03/22/09 — Legislators share views on schools, roads, funds

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Legislators share views on schools, roads, funds

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 22, 2009 2:00 AM

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State Rep. Efton Sager speaks during the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's Legislative Briefing Friday at the Goldsboro Country Club.

Wayne County's state legislative delegation gathered at the Goldsboro Country Club Friday morning to answer questions and to give a snapshot of what is happening right now in Raleigh.

So far, only two months into the session, much of the discussion in the capitol has been dominated by the $2 billion shortfall facing the state budget next year. But that wasn't the only issue members of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce wanted to hear about.

Reading from a previously submitted list of 26 questions, moderator John Chance was only able to ask about 11 of them, but most people said they were satisfied with the answers they received.

"It's good for them to come down here and tell us what they're experiencing up in Raleigh, and for us to talk to them one-on-one afterward or ask them questions about the issues we're dealing with here," Walnut Creek Councilman Tom Shaw said. "We need more of these."

Among the issues discussed were the use of lottery and Clean Water Trust Fund dollars by the governor, proposals to merge More at Four and Smart Start, the U.S. 70 bypass, health care, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and annexation.

Legislators also that they are still trying to get funding to begin work on a regional agricultural center, and that they expect funding for the construction of the new Cherry Hospital to remain in the budget.

But, most of the discussion was ultimately rooted in the state's budget situation.

"We're getting down to the bare bones," Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, said. "We're not in the best of situations, and we're going to have to take a serious at look it and make some cuts."

And, the delegation acknowledged, those cuts are likely to affect state services, especially with education, public safety and health and human services expenses accounting for 75 to 80 percent of the budget.

"We are going to have to take a step back from some things, but I don't think it's going to be detrimental," Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said. "I don't think we'll lose a lot. We want to hold onto our core. Our vision has not changed and our goals have not changed.

"We'll just have to throttle back a little and get through this."

They did say, though, that they don't expect the seizure of lottery and Clean Water Trust Fund money to continue. They explained that the former is only being held in reserve and hasn't been spent yet, and that the latter will be replaced by stimulus funds -- and that neither was included in the governor's 2009-10 budget.

In terms of education, in particular Smart Start and More at Four and the proposals that have been made to merge the two, legislators said that while that wasn't part of the governor's budget, it is an idea that is being discussed.

Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, explained that the goal is not to harm early childhood education, but to "look at ways to be more efficient in education."

"I believe we will be able to work out a way to give preschool education to all children. I believe our educators can work it out," Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, added.

Another education issue the legislators discussed -- and all opposed -- was a bill to cancel athletic programs for schools not making adequate academic progress.

"It's a bad bill," Davis said simply.

Touching on transportation and the U.S. 70 bypass, Braxton explained that state officials are aware of the importance of continuing to work on the corridor, but that the funding for the next three phases in Wayne County is not yet in place.

"It's very important for economic development ... but I don't think any of us will live to see the work complete," he said.

In terms of the military, Sager discussed several bills that have been introduced that they hope will help continue to make North Carolina a "military friendly" state.

Included among those are measures that would allow servicemen to transfer their military commercial driver's licenses to civilian ones, a bill to allow servicemen on leave to hunt and fish without a license, and a bill to allow some leeway on driver's license renewals for servicemen returning from deployments.

Another measure being discussed would expand the CDL proposal to other professions such as electricians and plumbers.

"The big thing is to stay in touch with local authorities and see how we can assist them," Sager said, mentioning encroachment and education issues in particular.

In terms of health care, the legislators all agreed that a statewide proposal is unlikely to occur, especially in the current economic climate, but said they are working hard to fix the state employee plan, which has been crippled by the lack of healthy, young employees paying into it -- due in part to its cost.

However, Davis noted, none of the three solutions being discussed -- allocating general fund dollars, increasing premiums or decreasing the level of service -- will satisfy everybody.

"Regardless of what button (yes or no) you push, somebody's going to be upset," he said.

And finally, the legislators discussed annexation -- specifically bills submitted by Sager in the House and Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, in the Senate to deannex the recently incorporated areas of Falling Brook and Buck Swamp into Goldsboro.

"Annexation is probably the most divisive and emotional issue we have facing us at this time," Braxton said. "Involuntary annexation has worked well for this state, and a lot of people think it still works well, but maybe it's time has passed.

"But if it has, there has to be a way for cities to grow."

And that, Rouzer said, was one reason he introduced his legislation.

"It wasn't to stick a finger in the nose of Goldsboro," he said. "It was intended to get some attention and to say this isn't fair."

Members of the Goldsboro City Council in attendance, however, weren't very satisfied with the answers, saying they would like to the opportunity to discuss the issue in more detail with Rouzer, Sager and Braxton.

Among the questions that didn't get answered, however, were several about rail and the state's ports -- something that bothered longtime advocate Sandy Korschun of Goldsboro, but something that county Commissioner Steve Keen understood.

"There is so much going on right now. It's a bottomless pit," he said.