04/20/12 — State budget, military, education top agenda

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State budget, military, education top agenda

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 20, 2012 1:46 PM

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State Sen. David Rouzer, center, listens to questions with, from left, Rep. Stephen LaRoque and Sen. Louis Pate at the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce "Eggs & Issues" forum at Lane Tree Country Club Thursday morning. The News-Argus was the primary sponsor for the event.

Annexation, education reform and continued efforts to cut back the state's regulatory powers will be among the top agenda items when the General Assembly returns to Raleigh following the November election. But until then, people should not expect to hear much except talk about the budget during what is expected to be a very brief short session next month, members of Wayne County's legislative delegation said Thursday.

No new ground was broken and lawmakers were short on specifics as they answered questions during a Wayne County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast at Lane Tree Golf Club sponsored by the Goldsboro News-Argus and the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

In attendance were state Sens. Louis Pate, of Mount Olive, and David Rouzer, of Smithfield, and state Reps. Efton Sager, of Goldsboro, Stephen LaRoque, of Kinston, and Larry Bell, of Clinton, the sole Democrat on the panel.

About a dozen questions were asked, including some from the floor, on topics ranging from protection of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and why the two political parties can't seem to work together to determine which party was being truthful about the effect of budget cuts on the number of classroom teachers.

"We did fund all teachers and all teacher assistant positions," LaRoque said. "The problem is federal funds that were used, one-time federal money that was used to fund permanent positions. You can't do that.

"We gave local school boards the ability to decide where to cut. Rather than cutting the fat at the top, they decided to cut the meat and the bone at the bottom. So I am not sure that we made the best decision in that, but that is the one we made, and if we need to change it, we will."

Bell said he favors more flexibility for local school systems.

"You say you funded so many teachers, did you say at what level you funded them -- $60,000, $40,000, $30,000?" Bell said.

Education accounts for up to 57 percent of the state budget, Rouzer said. The state cannot set that much of the budget aside and say it will deal with it later when it has a $2.5 billion shortfall to deal with, he said.

The fact is that kindergarten through 12th grade was cut by only 5.8 percent, he said.

Rouzer said he did not know anyone who lost a job in education and certainly not to the degree described during the course of the debate.

"There is more reform that needs to take place," he said. "If you look at the quality of education, money does not drive quality of education. Money is important. You have to have enough to make it work, but people know when you keep throwing money at an issue it doesn't necessarily solve the issue."

Other fundamentals have to be addressed, too, he said.

"One of the things I think you will see the Legislature look at after this next election is how you reform public education so you have more competition," he said. "So that you have some scale of merit-based pay for teachers. And create a little more competition in the educational arena."

As for working together, the two parties do that on 85 to 90 percent of the issues, LaRoque said. However, it is the controversial issues that get the most attention.

Rouzer added that the state Legislature is not nearly as partisan as Congress.

The Republicans on the panel emphasized how much the General Assembly had been able to accomplish in such a short time during the long session, and said the upcoming short session would last no more than five weeks.

"We will be in and out tweaking the budget," LaRoque said.

There will be a couple of serious discussions, however, he added.

"One of them is dealing with annexation reform," he said.

Rouzer, who is running for the newly formed 7th District congressional seat, agreed.

"We do have a fairly big deficit to deal with, as I understand, with Medicaid maybe $300 million to $400 million deficit when we go back into session," he said.

Bell, however, noted that lawmakers would be in Raleigh Monday -- the latest in a series of about six follow-up sessions since the long one ended.

"I feel we need to address whatever needs come before us," Bell said. "If it takes until August to do it, we need to do it."

Pate had to leave early to attend a meeting of the legislative oversight committee on public education.

One item that has not received much attention is the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and what that might mean -- especially to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Pate said. There is a need to be vigilant about the base as well as Fort Bragg, Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, he said.

"We escaped last time when there was a BRAC and all of the decisions made," he said. "In fact, I think we had a net gain in military forces in North Carolina. I hope that we have all of our ducks in a row so that we are not going to find ourselves losing military people. That is one thing we really need to pay attention to."

Rouzer said he thinks there would be unanimous support from local legislators to work with the Military Affairs Committee on issues concerning the base.

Health and human services, mental health, public education and the budget shortfall are other items that people need to be aware of, too, Pate said.

"We made some tough choices that we had to make to get the budget in line," Sager said. "I do not think we will have nearly the difficulty in the short session this time as we had previously in short sessions as far as balancing the budget. We do have some problems to face."

The lawmakers were asked their thoughts on how best to help small businesses.

"I think eliminating regulations is a key to it," Pate said. "Also, I do believe we need to concentrate on a well-trained workforce and have people available."

Local support is important, too, LaRoque said. It often seems that in economic development that counties go after the "big elephant" while forgetting about the people who are paying for those incentives -- the small businesses, he said. Yet they are not reaping the benefits, he added.

"We need to refocus on that, since it is the largest employer in our community, state and nation," LaRoque said.

Rouzer, who chairs the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee, said that one improvement is that agencies charged with setting regulations are now required to take into consideration the cost and effect on business.

Other forum sponsors included Sterne, Agee and Leach Inc., Pate Dawson Co. and Berkeley Mall.