05/02/11 — Wayne County legislators OK with budget

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Wayne County legislators OK with budget

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 2, 2011 1:46 PM

Wayne County legislators are, by and large, pleased with the budget the state House is expected to vote on this week, saying that it does what is necessary to fill a $2.3 billion shortfall while also eliminating two temporary taxes.

But that is exactly why state Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, is currently opposed to the $19.3 billion spending plan. He believes the cuts go too deep and that the temporary 1 cent sales tax and the income tax surcharge on the highest earners should be continued, at least until the economy improves.

"Why should we let it sunset when there's a crisis?" he said. "Most people don't even know they're paying it. It's not hurting that much."

But what will hurt, he said, is the approximately $1.3 billion of revenue being taken out of the budget that could have been used to fill the shortfall.

Especially harmful, he said, are the cuts that would be made to education, particularly the elimination of teacher assistants for second and third grades, and cuts to social services -- all of which would mean the loss of jobs.

In terms of education, he said, the loss of those positions would greatly impact students because of the necessary role the teacher assistants and other support staff play in the classroom.

"It's a little different than it used to be. There's so much technology now, teachers need help planning and getting everything set up. I see us going backward in education if these cuts go through," Bell said.

Similarly, he said, cuts in social services would adversely affect people already hurt by the economic downturn.

"It sounds good to people to talk about cutting, but people don't understand that we're talking about cutting services for them," he said. "I thought we had a good budget process this year. We had an opportunity to have input into the budget. But this right now, I probably couldn't support it."

Republicans, however, see the cuts as necessary to bring state spending back under control.

"I think it's a good budget," state Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, said. "I think we did the best we could in hard times and I'm pleased with it."

One area he acknowledged as a concern for many counties, including Wayne, is the proposal to shift misdemeanor prisoners from state prisons to local jails. However, he said, the proposed increases in court fees should help offset the added costs of caring for those inmates, and for those jails faced with overcrowding, the legislature is likely to look at reducing the amount of square footage required for each inmate.

"That is a concern," Sager said.

Another somewhat controversial provision that Sager said he is comfortable with is the new $75 fee for driver's education classes in the schools, and in fact, he said it's something that the state should consider privatizing.

"Many states don't have it in their schools. If somebody can't afford $75, they can't afford to buy a car or insurance," he said.

Furthermore in terms of education, he and state Rep. Stephen LaRoque said they are satisfied with the results of the budget, which focused most of its cuts on the university system.

"We fully funded the classrooms," LaRoque said, explaining that the budget gives superintendents the ability to shift money around as necessary to meet their needs. "The university system has been bloated for quite a while, and I think cuts there are more easily absorbed.

"I think we produced a very good budget based on the time constraints we had."

And while the goal is still to have a spending plan passed by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, the budget now goes to the Senate.

There, state Sen. David Rouzer, R-Wayne, said, they will probably look at including more policy changes than the House did, but that the total amount will likely remain similar -- provided tax revenues don't come back less than expected.

"I think we may look at making some more reforms," he said.

But once it comes out of the General Assembly, the budget must then be approved by Gov. Beverly Perdue who has indicated she is not willing to let the temporary taxes expire, setting up a possible standoff with Republican legislators, who, Sager said, have enough votes to override a veto in the Senate, but not in the House.

"We hope enough people on the other side of the aisle will sign it," he said. "I think the budget is realistic for these hard times."