07/24/09 — Local legislators not sure about final budget votes

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Local legislators not sure about final budget votes

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 24, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County legislators admitted Thursday that they have mixed feelings on the proposed $990 million tax package that was being discussed by House and Senate leaders this week, but only the Republicans promised to vote against it. Most of the others say they are still unsure if the final package will be something they can support.

"I voted against the first budget and tax package. I was not pleased with it," Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said. "But I really don't know right now what I'm going to do. I hate to just make all cuts."

For example, he said, without a revenue package, the state is looking at potentially losing 1,000 parole and probation jobs in the Department of Corrections, 10,000 teachers and large cuts in the areas of mental health and substance areas of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

"And I'm just not sure that as a state that's what we want to do," he said.

But a better revenue solution, he continued, would have been to simply do the 1-cent sales tax increase and use the resulting $800 million in revenues, as well as the state's stimulus money to get through the current crisis.

"It would not cover everything, but with that and the stimulus money we could do about everything we need to do," Braxton said.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, also said he was disappointed with the proposed income tax surcharge.

"I have strong concerns about that," he said, adding that when people in the district talk to him about revenue increases, the possibility of a sales tax seems to be most palpable option.

Of course, with the governor coming out against the surcharge, the whole package could look very different by the time it's ultimately approved. Also being discussed are increases in the so-called sin taxes on alcohol and cigarettes.

The problem, Braxton said, is that it's hard to make enough cuts to make a significant dent in the approximately $4.5 billion deficit the state's facing.

"Nobody wants to raise revenues and nobody wants to make the large cuts we'll need if we don't raise revenues. And (hurting the economy) is a big concern," he said. "You're between two bad options. People call me and say, 'If you all would just cut the fat out.' And sure there's waste. There's waste in every city and county government and in every family budget, but there's not $4.5 billion worth of waste."

Still, Davis said, the Legislature needs to continue to look at all possible ways of dealing with the deficit.

"I don't like any of it. It's painful. When I talk to people, they say we need to keep cutting. I ask them, tell me what we need to cut," he said. "I do think at this point it's too early to take anything off the table. I'd like to see us look at more cuts."

But he also acknowledged that tax increases will be part of the final package.

"I don't think anybody's excited about sales tax, or that anybody's excited about sin tax. But we have to look at revenues," he said, adding that his vote will depend on what the full package ultimately looks like. "There's no perfect solution here because of the size of the shortfall, and that what I think residents need to understand."

"Nobody wants to raise taxes in a bad economy, but if you look at it, is it better than the alternative? You just have to choose between the lesser of the two evils," Braxton added.

But for Republicans, that's exactly the concern -- that a tax package of this magnitude will ultimately do more harm than good.

"I definitely think that at a time like this it's going to hurt," said Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne.

"When you take $990 million out of the economy this year and $1.3 billion out of the economy next year, that doesn't do anything to encourage economic growth," Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, said. "You're actually going to stymie economic growth. Tax increases are not what's needed now. What's needed are tax cuts."

Besides, he said, this proposed revenue package takes government greed to a new level.

"With this surtax, you're taxing a tax. I never thought I'd see the day our Legislature would consider taxing taxes. That's ridiculous," he said.

But Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, and other Democrats feel the increases might be necessary for the state to continue providing its services.

"I don't think anyone wants to raise any taxes on anybody, but looking at the deficit and the cuts we'll have to make, I can't think of any other way to raise money," he said.

Already, he said, 45 percent of the deficit is being made up through cuts.

"Just think if we did nothing (to raise revenues), how much worse it would be," Bell continued. "We would really go into a depression. I think we're doing the best we can. It's just a bad situation.

"If anybody out there has any better ideas I'd love to hear them. People like to criticize, but I don't hear them coming up with solutions."

Of course, Republicans have said that's because they have been mostly shut out of the debate.

One suggestion Sager had -- one he said never got serious consideration by lawmakers -- was to cut spending in the state departments themselves. For example, he explained, instead of cutting teachers, the lawmakers should look more inside with the Department of Education itself.

"We do have some fat. Even at the state Legislature there are some cuts that can be made, but nobody's considered those," he said.