Budget salvo hits its target

Staff WriterMarch 23, 2004 

Daffodils are in bloom, and lawn mowers are abuzz. That means another rite of spring is upon us: the rhetorical arms race of budget time.

Once again, the battle is likely to be fierce between Gov. Mike Easley and state education leaders.

Easley likes to say he has protected education through one of the worst budget crises in state history. So it's all the more awkward for him when the university system and community colleges say they will have to slash programs if the governor doesn't come up with more money.

That hasn't stopped education leaders one bit.

Easley's numbers team gave state agencies their marching orders several weeks ago for the budget that starts July 1: Submit spending proposals with reductions of 1 percent to 3 percent by March.

Not all the proposals are in yet, but the posturing already has begun. The community college system, led by President Martin Lancaster, approved a budget proposal last week that calls for a 14 percent increase in spending, including $59.3 million for enrollment growth and $17.1 million for work force training.

The system also issued a statement criticizing Easley's call for cuts.

"For the community colleges, each percentage cut is a slashing of resources already stretched to the limit," the statement read.

Easley officials say they have made no decisions on what they will cut.

"These are the options," said Easley's senior budget adviser, Dan Gerlach. "This does not mean that we're going to take them. They are just options."

Gerlach noted that the request is not an indication that revenue forecasts have soured for next year. The government won't have a clear picture of whether tax receipts are on target until the end of April, after most personal income tax returns arrive.

Even better, Gerlach thinks the state is on track to end the year with change to spare.

"In the last couple of years, we've asked for 7 to 11 percent" in budget cuts, Gerlach said. "So that should give you some perspective here."

Still, the second half of the two-year budget approved last summer excludes a long list of major expenses. Among them: enrollment growth for universities and community colleges, pay raises for state workers and teachers, and Medicaid spending growth.

The money to finance such priorities will have to come from somewhere, Gerlach said.

In any event, Easley's budget proposal, not due out for many more weeks, is hardly the last word on the matter.

Educators and every other group with an interest in next year's state budget will have a chance to make their cases to lawmakers when they reconvene in May to make revisions to the 2004-05 spending plan.

Parting shot

Rich Visingardi, the embattled mental health director who returns to Michigan this month after two short years in North Carolina, sent a goodbye letter to politicians, advocates and local mental health workers last week.

Titled "Exit Communique," Visingardi's letter meanders through 1,500 words of hard-to-follow descriptions of his stewardship of mental-health reform efforts here. Yet it's only in the final paragraph that his point becomes clear: to defend himself against claims that he did a poor job.

"I leave knowing that in a public leadership role, people canonize as well as demonize you," Visingardi wrote. "There will be people sad or glad as well as indifferent to my leaving."

By staff writer Amy Gardner, who can be reached at 829-8902 or agardner@newsobserver.com.

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