Gov. Bev Perdue's administration is weighing sharp and painful budget cuts next year that would include state park closures, tuition hikes at community colleges and major state layoffs.
Faced with a projected $3.5 billion budget shortfall next year, Perdue asked the heads of state departments, agencies and colleges to develop plans for cuts ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent. The governor's office made public those recommendations Monday at the request of news organizations.
The proposals are just the first step in what is likely to be a long and winding political path as the Democratic governor considers her options and then the new Republican legislature enacts a budget, probably some time next summer. But the options are the clearest indications yet, that the lives of millions of North Carolinians will likely be touched by a new wave of austerity in state government that has not been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Students enrolled in North Carolina's 58-campus community college system - which has boomed during the recession as people sought new job skills - would see tuition rise $10 per credit hour to $56.50 per credit hour. At the same time, 1,000 teachers will likely lose their jobs, meaning that fewer community college courses will be offered in nursing and welding and other subjects.
"We are talking about a 10 percent cut that is real pain," said Scott Ralls, president of the state community college system.
State parks, such as the Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest in Wilkes County, the Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest in Bladen County, Mount Jefferson State Natural Area in Ashe County and Singletary Lake State Park in Bladen County would be closed under the proposals being considered.
Also under consideration is closing many other state parks on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays - the days when they are least used.
For those who rely on home health services, deep cuts appear likely.
Last week, the state Department of Public Instruction laid out options that would result in the loss of 5,300 of the roughly 82,000 state-funded teachers and an increase in class size.
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said it was difficult to tell whether the state agencies were trying to influence public opinion by proposing to cut popular programs.
"Obviously both on the federal and state level, on occasions like this, agencies understand some of the things they do are less valued by the public than others," Taylor said. "It makes sense to put the more valued services on the chopping block to make the public aware that they will have a tangible impact."
But Taylor added, "In North Carolina most people have been primed that there will be significant cuts. We are moving into the third year of the fiscal crisis. People understand it hurts. It's hard to imagine that it would be an effective strategy."
The coming cuts also come on top of two years of austere budgets. But the crunch is expected to worsen in the fiscal year beginning in July because $1.3 billion in tax increases is expected to expire and $1.6 billion in federal stimulus money will run out.
The anticipated cuts alarmed advocates for public services.
"These kinds of cuts would be an absolute disaster," said Rob Schofield with N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group. "They would decimate a host of already underfunded programs and wipe out decades of progress. We're talking about firing thousands of teachers, health care providers, mental health workers, and providers of aid to seniors.
"If we want North Carolina to look like some dark, crumbling rust belt state that's all but given up on progress, that is merely trying to survive, these are the kinds of cuts we would implement," Schofield said.
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