By GARY D. ROBERTSON Associated Press
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A North Carolina state government budget written by Republicans that cuts taxes, scales back environmental controls and trims courts and dozens of agencies became law Wednesday despite Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s arguments it would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs.

The two-year spending plan took effect after the Republican-led Senate agreed Wednesday afternoon to override Perdue’s veto on a party-line vote of 31-19. The House mustered a similar majority earlier Wednesday after midnight with the help of five Democrats.

The override means the budget, which spends $19.7 billion for the year starting July 1, will take effect. It lets temporary taxes expire, meaning the base sales tax consumers pay will be cut by a penny, from 7.75 percent to 6.75 percent. Additional taxes for the highest wage earners and corporations, approved in 2009 by Democrats during the depths of the Great Recession, also won’t be renewed.

Eliminating the temporary taxes was a top priority of the first Republican majority in 140 years. Their insistence on ending the taxes became a key reason why enough House Democrats agreed to cut a deal and the GOP won a significant victory over Perdue in what’s become a divided state government.

“I don’t think we’ve done any more than what we promised the people of the state we would do,” said Sen. Don East, R-Surry, during the override debate.

Perdue, fellow Democrats and a chorus of allied groups argued that extending the sales tax would have prevented all the deep spending cuts in the Republican budget. State education officials said the budget would lead to the elimination to 13,000 public education jobs, of which 3,200 comes from the University of North Carolina system. Another group who supported additional revenues estimated the two-year budget would cause a net loss of 30,000 public and private sector positions, particularly when lost Medicaid funding is taken into account.

“Someday we’re going to be looking at some of these cuts and we’re going to say this is the time where we turned away” from education, said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, former budget-writing chief under Democratic rule. “I never thought I’d see the day when it would come to this.”

Perdue said in her veto message Sunday the bill will do untold damage to the public schools and higher education, damage the environment and make people less safe because fewer state troopers and police officers will be on their beats.

The House made quick work of an override, getting the three-fifths majority needed on the first day the chamber could consider the question. After the House override vote, Perdue said she would keep fighting for public education despite the defeat. She had no additional comment following the Senate vote, Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said.

Republicans argue their opponents overstate job losses and don’t take into account more than $250 million in federal funds the local districts have yet to spend for preserving education positions. The tax breaks alone in the budget will generate nearly 15,000 jobs, the GOP has said. The budget spends about $220 million less than Perdue had proposed and lets temporary taxes approved by the Democratic majority in 2009 to expire on time. Legislators spent about $258 million less on public education than Perdue proposed, or about 2.3 percent less.

“A lot of the rhetoric has gotten to be overblown,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. Berger also pointed out the budget contained additional funds to hire more than 1,100 teachers in early grades and the platform to create a merit pay plan for teachers starting in the 2012-13 school year. The public school year also would grow from 180 classroom days to 185.

“That is a philosophical shift,” Berger said.

The budget bill, however, also made specific policy changes that had been sought by business interests and conservative social groups.

It would eliminate 160 positions in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and stop the agency from independently setting rules more stringent than minimum rules by the federal government. Planned Parenthood would be barred from receiving state and federal funds for non-abortion health and education services. Also abolished would be the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, which manages 25 percent of the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement.

Funding for more than 1,250 full-time positions would be eliminated in the courts, local prosecutor offices and prisons. Funding for drug treatment courts and a program to help offenders get substance abuse treatment instead of prison time were eliminated. Money for state historic sites would be reduced or phased out over time, according to the budget bill.

Voters demand that the state make more with less, just like they’ve had to as the economy has foundered, said Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The spending plan for the next two years will be in place two weeks before the fiscal year begins July 1, the earliest date for its enactment since 1979, according to General Assembly records.

“We finally brought our appetite for spending in line with our revenues,” Brubaker said, adding that citizens “just want government to live within their means.”

The Senate vote came a few hours after a midday rally by the North Carolina Association of Educators, where its members brought jars of pennies – a symbolic gesture of what they see is a small price to pay to preserve education. Jill Elberson, a technology teacher who was one of four people laid off Monday at her Randolph County middle school due to budget cuts, said she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

“At school, I had 800 kids that depend on me that I can’t be there for anymore,” said Elberson, 47, of Thomasville. “It’s not there because they took our penny away. It’s just that simple.”


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