Reactions differ over budget plan

Published 11:47 am Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Staff Writers

Most Beaufort County leaders say it’s too early to determine the full effects of the budget-adjustment proposal for the coming year unveiled by Gov. Beverly Perdue on Tuesday.
Perdue’s plan cuts more than $950 million by eliminating or reducing dozens of programs while restoring an experience-based pay raise for North Carolina’s public-school teachers.
While some county leaders and education leaders interviewed Tuesday said they are concerned about the plan’s effects on local coffers, others said the effects of Perdue’s 2010-2011 proposed budget will not be as dire as last year.
Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill said he needs more time to study Perdue’s figures more closely to better determine its effects on county government, but Spruill said he is “worried” about a number of items that could adversely affect the county budget in the coming fiscal year.
“I’m worried about the availability and limitations of state provided subsidized day care funding,” he said. “I’m also worried about the availability and limitations of state-shared revenue from the point of view of providing foster-care services and child protective services and entitlement programs.”
The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners is expected to begin its 2010-2011 budget discussions May 10.
In her recommended changes to the second year of the two-year budget approved by the General Assembly last summer, Perdue said most state agencies would take an additional 5 percent to 7 percent spending reduction on top of 10 percent reductions last year, although the paring of public education would be less than 4 percent.
The $19.1 billion budget proposal that lawmakers will consider in making their own spending changes when the General Assembly convenes in May also would eliminate more than 600 positions, although most are currently vacant, Perdue’s office said.
Her proposal “relies on difficult, but necessary and responsible decisions about prioritizing the services that North Carolina state government provides to its 9.5 million citizens,” Perdue wrote to legislative leaders in her budget preface.
But much of the $957 million in spending cuts would be used for expanding other programs, teach additional children in the public schools and in higher education, help small businesses create jobs and pay for salaries and benefits. The state also would benefit from an additional $578 million in expected federal stimulus funds.
In her proposed budget, Perdue asked leaders in the House and Senate to give an extra $39 million to the public schools to buy hand-held devices designed to help teachers in grades K-3 and fifth grade to assess student performance.
The devices, which cost about $300 each, are designed to expand Perdue’s Ready, Set, Go! program meant to ensure that every child graduates from high school with the skills to succeed in a career or attend a community college, university or technical training.
Teachers would again receive their longevity-based salary increase — on average about 1.8 percent — after it was suspended last year because of a down economy. State employees and teachers would each get a one-time bonus to make up for a furlough last year that cost them 0.5 percent of their salaries, according to published reports.
Perdue also would give an extra three-days’ leave to rank-and-file state employees and another day that would essentially require state government to close down two days before Christmas.
Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps said local public-school leaders are in a “wait-and-see mode” following the release of Perdue’s budget and will be watching to see what the final state budget holds for the schools.
And, he said, that thanks to briefings from the state Department of Public Instruction, school leaders were prepared for what they saw Tuesday.
School leaders are scheduled to discuss the system’s budget this week.
Perdue’s budget also includes $85 million to meet enrollment demands in the community-college system and $2.5 million to upgrade equipment and technology needs at the colleges for JobsNOW programs. Her proposed budget also raises tuition at community colleges by $8 per credit hour and increases the fee for those taking the General Education Development test to $15.
Phillip Price, dean of administrative services at Beaufort County Community College, said that although he still has questions about the effects of the budget on the local community college, “I am more comfortable where we are this year than last year.”
Although Price does not anticipate any staff or faculty reductions at the college’s campus near Washington, he is concerned that Perdue’s budget plan cuts some curriculum programs offered to prisoners by the community colleges, which, if enacted, could lead to the elimination of four of the college’s teachers at the prison in Hyde County.
One legislative observer called Perdue’s budget “a mixed bag.”
Jeff Shaw, communications director for the North Carolina Justice Center, a Raleigh think tank, said that while Perdue’s spending plan includes $8.5 million to a program that would allow 8,100 more children to have access to health insurance, it also requires local school boards across the state to cut $130 million.
“It’s really tough to access to impact of that,” Shaw said.
In her proposed budget, Perdue wants lawmakers to agree to spend $86 million in small-business assistance, corporate tax incentives and a cash injection to relieve traffic congestion which, she said, will help create 35,000 jobs during the next three years.
Perdue’s budget plan also calls for saving $35 million through eliminating Medicaid fraud, waste and abuse; revamping the state’s program to provide in-home personal care services for Medicaid patients and giving $4 million to the state Department of Revenue to help collect $110 million in overdue taxes from corporations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.