06/28/09 — Wayne leaders: No quick vote for budget

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Wayne leaders: No quick vote for budget

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 28, 2009 2:00 AM

With a 2009-10 budget deficit that seems to be growing by the day, the North Carolina General Assembly is poised to approve a continuing budget resolution Tuesday as negotiations between the House and the Senate continue to drag on.

The resolution, which would fund the government at 85 percent of what was originally budgeted for the current fiscal year, has been approved by the Senate and will go before the full House on Monday. If signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue, it will go into effect Wednesday if a 2009-10 spending plan is not approved.

Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, expressed disappointment, saying the House had been hoping to be done by June 30.

"Our goal (was) to be out by June 30," he said. "We worked really hard to give a budget back to the Senate as early as possible, and I think it was a good one."

But the need for a continuing resolution took nobody by surprise. The Legislature hasn't approved a budget on time since 2003, and some legislators are predicting it will be at least another six to eight weeks before they have a spending plan ready this year.

Currently, explained Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, and one of the Senate negotiators, members of the two chambers are hashing through the House and Senate versions to come to some sort of compromise as to where cuts should be made and how new revenue streams should be created to make up what Democrats say is a $4.7 billion shortfall -- an amount Republicans say is overstated.

"We'd rather get this right than just get through this. We're trying to fully understand the situation we're in so we can make the tough decisions," Davis said. "At this point, we've heard from the agencies, we've heard from the constituents.

"Basically what we're doing now is looking at the budget and going line by line, looking at each item and giving each item its due diligence and discussion and trying to determine the impact on our communities.

"It's a very interesting process, but it's tough. It's really tough. It's long hours. We're having to do the same thing families are doing at home every day -- looking for ways to tighten the purse strings."

And, he said, that means making some unavoidable deep cuts, even as they look for new revenue streams.

"There's no way to avoid deep cuts and I don't take lightly increasing revenues -- it's just how do you soften the blow," Davis said.

The revenue package, though, seems to be the sticking point, with the House's more than $700 million version raising the sales tax and adding an upper level income tax bracket, and the Senate's more than $900 million version lowering sales and income taxes, but expanding sales tax to a greater number of services.

"My understanding is they're miles apart," said Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir.

And to top things off, the governor is asking for a $1.5 billion revenue package, although negotiators say that number isn't figuring much into their discussions.

"We're focused on our work," Davis said. "We're trying to work things out. The governor's going across the state, and we're in meetings."

It's a situation, though, that could pose a problem for local governments, school boards and other agencies dependent on state funding.

And for those entities, the best answer legislators had was for them to stay in communication with their legislators to stay on top of potential changes.

"There are some things that can be etched in stone, like no pay increases for teachers, that I think we should let them know that these are the things you can count on, that we've reached an agreement on," Bell said.

Unfortunately, Repub-lican legislators said, getting that information out of the conference committee members has been hard -- although Bell said any of them are welcome to sit in on the conference committee meetings.

"It's pretty closed," said Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne. "They'll unveil it all at once. They ought to be willing to share what they're discussing. Why should they keep it secret? They're going to ask for our support for the budget."

Of course, he and Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, aren't expected to lend their support to the spending plan largely because of the tax increases it is expected to contain.

"I don't think their focus is in the right area," Rouzer said, adding that instead of "the patchwork we're trying to do," they should have focused on reforming state spending and the tax code to make sure they don't have to do this again next year and the year after. "This is recession is likely to linger, and revenues lag upturns in the economy. We'll be having budget issues for the next five to seven years."