Budget Reactions Guarded
Local reactions to Gov. Beverly Perdue's proposed budget Friday were mostly subdued and guarded.
Administrators of state agencies admit that they have no inside information about the effect her budget could have on operations in Moore County.
"We're just waiting for the pink slips," quipped one unidentified state employee.
But state Rep. Jamie Boles had a more optimistic outlook and said the prediction of an additional cut of 3,000 state job could well be absorbed by the average retirement of 8,000 employees a year.
The 3,000 job cuts would be in addition to 7,000 positions already vacant, largely through attrition.
"It really sounds worse than it is," said Boles, adding that some employees may opt for an early retirement buyout offer.
Perdue presented her budget proposal to the N.C. General Assembly Thursday. Her $19.9 billion proposal, which is about the size of the current year's budget, represents just part of the preparation process.
The legislature must produce its own budget, which both chambers have to adopt before it reaches the governor, who has veto power on the total document, but not line item veto authority.
With both legislative chambers now controlled by Republicans, Perdue, who is a Democrat, faces challenges in addition to the obvious issue of balancing a budget in the wake of a revenue shortfall estimated at $2.4 billion.
That projected shortfall, however, has dropped more than $1 billion in recent weeks as revenues have picked up and other fiscal issues have been resolved.
The sharp decrease in the shortfall estimate prompted Boles to a bit of humor.
"It's amazing how the deficit dropped from $3.7 billion to $2.4 billion in just a week or two," Boles said jokingly. "Maybe if we give her another two or three weeks, the shortfall will go away."
On a more serious note, Boles said that $1 billion is a lot of money, and the state still faces a serious budget dilemma.
Perdue's budget proposal drew a quick and critical response from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, which charged that her budget funds the state education system by dumping much of the state's financial responsibility onto the backs of counties.
"Not only does the proposed budget shift responsibility to pay for replacement school buses ($56.9 million), it takes the unprecedented step of forcing counties to assume the workers' compensation costs for state-paid public school employees ($34.6 million) and community college employees ($1.7 million)," the association said in a news release.
"The proposal also reduces state-funded positions in the local public school systems for administration, academic support and other non-instructional support areas, which will put additional pressure on counties to fund these positions."
Clerk of Superior Court Susan Hicks said that two of seven magistrate positions in Moore County have already been eliminated. As for the regular workload of her office, Hicks cited a documented need for at least two more positions to handle basic operations.
"It's all the information I have at this time," Hicks said.
Chuck Dumas, district engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation in Aberdeen, said he has received no information about cuts at the local level.
In addition to cutting jobs, the governor's budget could affect Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, the only state park in Moore County. Perdue has suggested that state parks may be closed two days a week to save money.
Boles said the governor's budget actually contains few details about spending cuts but he is concerned about several areas.
One point of concern is the apparent shifting of financial responsibility to the counties on education needs. Her budget does not reduce the number of classroom teachers but omits state coverage of support costs, which must be paid by counties.
"I don't think we can do that to the counties without a gradual scale," Boles said. "We need to give everybody time to plan for it."
Boles also questions whether her budget actually contains the spending cuts needed to balance the new budget.
"I don't think she's done the cuts," he said of Perdue's proposal. "It's about the same amount of dollars we had last year."
Although Boles gives the governor high marks for her call to reduce the corporate tax by 2 percentage points to an all-time low, he does not like her proposal to retain three-fourths of the temporary sales tax imposed two years ago as a stopgap budget measure.
He said he wants the whole penny eliminated.
"She's just eliminating one-fourth of the penny," Boles said Friday. "That's not a full penny. To me, it's still a tax."
Perdue estimates that retaining 75 percent of the penny tax would provide $826.6 million that could be applied to salaries in the schools and colleges.
Boles said he is also concerned that the governor's proposal leaves it up to the legislature to decide where many of the cuts are to be made, a tactic that appears to place lawmakers in the villain's position.
Still, Boles said he is not ready to give up on the governor, who, like the legislature, is in the tightest budget situation in modern history.
"It was a good start," he said. "I commend her."
Rep. Joe Hackney, House minority leader, issued a brief statement calling the governor's budget proposal a good place to begin budget discussions.
"I am pleased to see that she has protected teaching personnel in our schools," he said. "In crafting the last two difficult state budgets, Democrats in the General Assembly worked with the governor to protect education. I urge my Republican colleagues to do the same for 2011-12."
Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, represents a district that includes one and a half precincts in Moore County. He formerly served as speaker of the House.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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