GOP sees opportunity in crisis

Stam says budget woes will allow the party to 'right-size' government.

Staff WriterJanuary 14, 2011 

— North Carolina could be much different, in ways large and small, after the Republican-led legislature leaves its imprint on state policies and priorities.

Speaking at a forum Thursday afternoon, two Republican decision-makers, House Majority Leader Paul Stam of Apex and future Senate budget writer Neal Hunt of Raleigh, described a state where voters present IDs before casting ballots, teachers are paid on the basis of how good they are rather than how long they have worked, and beach visitors pay more to ride state ferries.

Dealing with the $3.7 billion state budget hole has taken the main stage in discussions of what the Republican legislature will do this year. Republican leaders say their priorities will be writing the budget and drawing new legislative and congressional district maps.

Stam told attendees at the Triangle Community Coalition forum that he considers the budget crisis an opportunity to "right-size" state government. The coalition is real estate interests and other local business groups.

"We'll have about $18 billion to spend," he said. "That's a lot of money."

When budget writers get together to talk about cuts, nothing is exempt from consideration, Hunt said. In meetings this week, he said, they talked about the possibility of cutting district attorneys.

But North Carolina could be transformed in ways that go beyond budget.

Merit pay for public school teachers and tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools will be considered this year, Stam said. The way to improve public schools is to keep the best teachers on the job, he said.

Stam said Republicans will keep their campaign promise to require photo identification or a voter identification card. Supporters say IDs will prevent voter fraud. But voter ID laws have been denounced as tactics to discourage voting, most recently by Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, who this week drew parallels between voter ID requirements and poll taxes.

None of these ideas is set in stone, of course. The legislative session doesn't start until Jan. 26, and no bills have been filed or put to votes. Republicans hold significant advantages in both chambers but may have to negotiate with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who has veto power.

Republicans will move to repeal the authority the legislature gave counties in 2007 to levy a tax of up to 0.4 percent on property sales if county voters approve. Transfer tax authority was part of a deal where legislators agreed to take on county Medicaid costs, in exchange for one-half percent of local sales tax receipts. Democrats put the transfer tax in a budget that Republicans didn't vote for, Stam said. Transfer tax proposals have failed in more than 20 counties.

And beach visitors should expect new ferry fees to make their operation nearly self-supporting, Hunt said. Legislators are interested in reducing the tax rate while expanding the tax base to include services.

Legislators have talked about changing the tax structure for year but haven't done much more than talk.

"Politically, it's very unpopular," Hunt said.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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