07/01/10 — Local lawmakers: Measure dictated by recession woes

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Local lawmakers: Measure dictated by recession woes

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 1, 2010 1:46 PM

Local legislators are happy that the budget is out on time this year for the first time in seven years, but not all are pleased with its results. For most, however, Larry Bell, D-Sampson, said, "It's about the best bad budget you can get."

The $18.9 billion spending plan approved by the General Assembly and signed Wednesday by Gov. Beverly Perdue is down about $3 billion since 2008, Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, said.

And, he added, it's the definition of a compromise bill.

"It's not perfect. It never is," Braxton said.

The biggest concern over the budget is the fact that a $500 million Medicaid funding shortfall could still be coming depending on what decisions are made on the federal level by Congress. Unfortunately, those results won't likely be known until later this year, or even early next year. That's why the Legislature also approved a contingency plan that includes cutting Medicaid funding and pulling money out of the state pension fund.

"We still have that $500 million looming. That will be a tough pill to swallow if it doesn't come," Braxton said.

Overall, however, most legislators agreed that the budget was about the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances -- that it protects education, limits state employee cuts and strives to help small businesses grow the economy. One area that several local legislators are disappointed in is funding for mental health.

"It's not a perfect budget, but we had to make some tough decisions. What we have is a budget that helps keep residents working, a budget that does not shortchange students in the classroom, and a budget that helps put some jumper cables on the economy," Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, said.

However, others like Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, weren't so happy with the way things turned out.

His complaints with the budget were twofold -- one, that it included items he didn't consider relevant to the spending plan, such as a ban on the use of plastic bags in stores in three coastal counties, and two, that it didn't include much Republican input.

"There needs to be a better process," he said.

He also said again that if the state would go to a zero-based budgeting process -- one in which all funding lines begin at zero every year -- that even more savings could be found.

"We need zero-based budgeting, and if Republicans gain control of the House next year, I'm sure that's how we're going to operate," Sager said.

The other concern by legislators is what will happen next year with the budget when $1.7 billion worth of federal stimulus money is scheduled to disappear and one-time withdrawals from such funds as the lottery expire.

However, Braxton said, voicing the opinion of others, that's not something they felt they could worry too much about this year.

"I don't know what else we could do except raise more taxes or cut more services," he said. "My attitude, and I think the consensus is, even though that's a concern, it's something that we'll have to worry about next year."

And hopefully, he added, there will be enough improvement in the economy that the state's revenue streams will pick up enough to offset some of the potential shortfall.

Braxton, Bell and Davis all voted for the spending plan. Sager and Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston -- who could not be reached for comment before presstime, but said in a written statement that "the mentality that government comes first must stop," and that he was disappointed in the budget's "patchwork of cuts," which continues to ignore "a structural deficit" in the state's taxation and budgeting systems -- voted against it.

"I'm glad we stayed on our schedule. It all started when the governor gave us the budget early," Bell said. " I think it's really great. I think it's something we should do every year."