RALEIGH — Children and teachers would take a hit in budget cuts proposed Monday by Democratic leaders in the state Senate.
Senate leaders are proposing to cope with a potential $3 billion shortfall in next year's budget, in part, by adding two more students to the average public school classroom in North Carolina and chop funding for the state's pre-kindergarten program nearly in half.
Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, quickly fired off her objections to the legislature's first formal response to the budget she proposed last month. Perdue pledged then to protect education by making other spending cuts, increasing taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and relying on an influx of federal stimulus money.
"An increase of two students per class means eliminating 6,200 teaching positions," Perdue spokesman David Kochman said, "and reducing the amount of individual attention our kids receive in the classroom."
Sen. A.B. Swindell, a Nash County Democrat and co-chairman of the appropriations committee, said the $20 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is fair.
"But it certainly won't bring us roses in the morning," Swindell said.
Sen. John Snow, a Murphy Democrat, cautioned that the April tax revenues, the truest barometer of the state's finances, aren't even in yet: "It's going to get worse," Snow said.
Increasing class size to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade and 22 students from fourth to 12th grade would save $320 million annually, said Sen. Linda Garrou, the Senate's senior budget writer and a Winston-Salem Democrat.
"When I taught school, I had 40 students, so thankfully we're not there," said Garrou, a former high school history teacher.
The Democratic Senate leaders' proposal was in keeping with long-standing Republican criticism that incremental reductions in class size don't measurably improve learning.
"There's not any fall-off in classroom performance, and it's a way to save money," said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a deputy Republican leader from Winston-Salem. "They're listening to us on some things."
The Senate's proposal differs from Perdue's plan in key areas.
The Senate package would lay off as many as 712 state employees and eliminate 900 vacant positions. Perdue's proposal would have sought to keep layoffs to fewer than 300 employees.
Under the Senate plan, the leaders of state departments would have to meet specified targets for spending cuts. Officials could make the cuts in several ways, including furloughs, Swindell said. Perdue said she avoided furloughs because she feared the message it would send to businesses and investors about the state's financial condition.
The Senate proposal would cut $2 billion from current state spending. Not all program cuts were clear Monday evening, but the Senate plan would save $40 million by beginning to merge former Gov. Mike Easley's signature More at Four pre-kindergarten program with former Gov. Jim Hunt's Smart Start program for preschool children.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Lanier Cansler, whose agency would oversee both programs, said he didn't know whether fewer children would be enrolled.
"How else could they do it?" than to reduce the number of children, asked Elaine Mejia, director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a nonprofit watchdog group that advocates for the poor.
The Senate budget relies on roughly $580 million in new revenue. Perdue proposed raising more than $500 million from increased alcohol and tobacco taxes. The Senate has not yet revealed exactly how it would raise the money.
The Senate budget did not spell out its new tax plan, but one proposal under consideration is to apply the sales tax to some services while lowering tax rates.
Federal economic recovery money would generally be used for one-time spending in the Senate budget.
"The stimulus money is there to backfill," Swindell said.
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