Lawmakers battle over budget proposal

Published 1:01 am Wednesday, May 25, 2011

State Senate Republicans pulled back the curtain on their $19.4 billion spending package Tuesday, billing the measure as one that reforms government, cuts taxes and creates jobs.

Democrats disagreed, saying the bill attacks everything from prekindergarten education to people who ride the state’s ferries.

“By ending a sales tax hike Democrat lawmakers and Gov. Beverly Perdue promised to end this year but want to raise anyway, the budget returns more than $1 billion to the pockets of North Carolina residents and businesses, where it will help create thousands of new private-sector jobs,” reads a news release from the office of Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

“It also closes a $2.5 billion deficit Republicans inherited after taking control of the General Assembly in January,” the release reads.

The release quotes Berger, Senate president pro tempore, as saying this budget keeps GOP promises.

“As promised, this budget right-sizes state government, lets North Carolinians keep more of their own money, and makes long-overdue improvements to public education,” Berger said. “We promised voters we would make these tough decisions. We’re doing exactly what voters elected us to do.”

Critics on the left countered the Senate budget would do away with 13,000 public schools jobs, most of them teacher assistant positions, and make other inroads into education.

The Senate GOP’s blueprint would spend more on education than the recently passed House budget and institute education reforms, according to Berger’s staff.

Berger’s news release said the budget would:

  • add 1,100 teachers from the first through third grades, with a goal of funding one teacher for every 15 pupils in those grades in future years.
  • tack on five more days to the public school calendar.
  • and set aside in excess of $100 million for school construction.

Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, represents Beaufort County and seven other counties in the Senate.

White panned the Republican-crafted budget.

He noted the measure calls on the N.C. Board of Transportation to set tolls for all of the state’s ferries.

This would lead to tolls on ferry routes that currently are free, one of them being the Aurora-Bayview ferry across the Pamlico River.

The budget appears to leave the amounts of these tolls to the DOT board’s discretion.

White also decried a called-for 20-percent reduction in programs for early childhood care and education.

“In my personal opinion North Carolina’s going to be a different place if this budget passes as it’s presented, and certainly there’s going to be some significant impact to the eastern part of the state,” he said.

Lisa Woolard is executive director of the Beaufort-Hyde Partnership for Children, which administers prekindergarten care and education programs.

“We got killed,” Woolard said of the Senate budget.

Senate budget-writers retain House-approved 20-percent funding cuts in programs like Smart Start, but transfer another $20 million from these programs to child care subsidies managed by social services organizations, Woolard said.

Child care subsidies are offered to parents who meet eligibility requirements through their local departments of social services, she explained.

These changes could spell the end of some state-funded child care programs in Hyde and Beaufort counties, Woolard acknowledged.

“I’m not seeing how the details are going to be worked out on how the money’s going to come down as it stands,” she said. “I just feel like in the end all the investment that the state has been making in its children and its future work force of tomorrow, it’s all going to be lost.”

Some other budget highlights include:

  • a temporary reduction in income taxes for individuals and small businesses.
  • additional reporting requirements for economic development grants, among them an account of the actual numbers of jobs created by a recipient business in a given grant period.
  • $49,000 in funding for the Aurora Fossil Museum in fiscal years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.

Most sources contacted for this story were unable to comment because they hadn’t had a chance to read through the 376-page proposed budget as of Tuesday afternoon.

White said Senate Democrats were scheduled to caucus Tuesday to see if they could come together around alternatives to the GOP Senate plan.

Gov. Beverly Perdue could veto the budget once it receives final approval in the General Assembly.