Every day, Bonnie Johnson shines a flashlight into the mouths of the state's most vulnerable children, hunting for crumbled teeth and infections they suffer in silence.
For now, Johnson is a state employee, a dental hygienist paid by state taxpayers to make sure children's oral health isn't standing in the way of their success at school.
By year's end, she could join the droves of North Carolina's unemployed, which swelled to more than 439,000 in December. Johnson's $54,000 salary could be used to help close a $3.7 billion deficit lawmakers say they will conquer by cutting government spending.
"Day to day, I don't know if I'm going to have a job," said Johnson, 41, who serves schools in Harnett and Johnston counties. "It's so scary. No one wants to lose their job, but when I think about all these kids not getting this service, I'm devastated."
State workers such as Johnson feel as if they have a target on their backs. More than 275,000 people are paid from the state treasury, including schoolteachers; state government is North Carolina's largest employer.
Plans that agency heads prepared for the governor added up to a potential loss of as many as 21,000 state employees, people in jobs once deemed among the safest around. Johnson's program at the Division of Public Health was submitted as a possible sacrifice as leaders try to balance the budget.
Lawmakers got to work last week and promised to reduce the size of government. House Speaker Thom Tillis told reporters that Republican leaders would not accept extensions of temporary tax increases passed two years ago. Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger promised to "right-size" government.
"Just as working families and small businesses have to make difficult decisions about tightening their belts to make ends meet, we as a state will also have to tighten our belts to put our financial house in order," Berger said.
Just how much those cuts will fall on state workers is not clear. Some Republican leaders, such as House Majority Leader Paul Stam of Apex, said they'd be focused heavily on eliminating posts through attrition. Earlier this month, Berger said layoffs would be inevitable.
Jobs no longer safe
Payroll is a huge expense for the state. Lawmakers have chipped away at it in recent years through furloughs, pay freezes and increases in health insurance premiums. And, quietly, with little fanfare, departments have laid off state workers. In the last year and a half, about 1,000 state employees have been let go to cut the budget, according to the Office of State Personnel.
"When I was young, I thought, this is the job that will take care of everything: benefits, retirement ... all that ... ," said George Thiessen, 46, a father of three who has been a state correctional worker for 18 years. "It is anything but a wonderland. The day of the cushioned state employee job is gone."
For all these cutbacks, some in the private sector - and some lawmakers - say that North Carolina's government hasn't faced anywhere near the chaos of private companies.
Greg Thompson, a salesman in Cary who had to shut down his business during the economic downturn, said the salaries of state employees at the top end, such as university professors and administrators, ought to be slashed.
"The private industry has borne the brunt of [the recession] for so long," said Thompson, 55. "I say, cut the salaries at the top, and if those people aren't willing, invite them to try the private sector. And good luck."
Budget already lean
Some state workers and their advocates say that legislators will have a tough time cutting an already lean budget.
"Waste and duplication of services have already been cut a long time ago," said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
Gov. Bev Perdue has sketched a consolidation plan, merging 14 departments into eight, in hopes of losing some management and administrative jobs that come with them. She also forced departments under her to make the tough calls themselves, handing over proposals to forfeit 5, 10 or 15 percent of their budgets.
Cope suspects the proposals are tough talk that will be nearly impossible to deliver. Although he expects some state employees will lose their jobs, he predicts legislators will not be able to fill the hole through cutting jobs alone.
Leading lawmakers say they will focus first on positions already vacant and those that will become vacant as employees leave voluntarily. In a given year, roughly 10 percent of state employees give up their jobs. And, as of the first of the year, 9,419 positions in central government - departments such as Transportation, Correction and Justice - were vacant.
Tillis, the House speaker, said whatever reductions are made will be done with extreme caution and with regard for how those cuts will reverberate in the community.
"Part of responsible management is to lessen the impact of cuts that we make, in terms of jobs, by sequencing them with natural attrition," Tillis said.
A faceless work force
Some say a negative view of government work is bred, in part, because people don't realize that government is their child's kindergarten teacher, the nurse who looked after their mom during a mental breakdown and the man who drove the plow overnight so they could get to work.
"When you say state government worker, it's so anonymous," said John Quinterno, a work-force analyst in Chapel Hill. "But, what it breaks down to is this: It's your neighbors. It's your kid's teacher. It's people you need, and they are the backbone of a lot of communities."
Alexandra Forter Sirota, director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a nonprofit that advocates for low- and middle-income families, estimated cuts in personnel would be more than 7 percent if legislators adopted budget proposals submitted to the governor. She said cuts that deep will cause the state's recession to linger. She estimates that the effects will seep into the private sector, too, as displaced state workers adjust their spending.
After 27 years with UNC-Chapel Hill, Elizabeth Evans lost her job in 2009, during a third round of layoffs in her department. Evans, 54, said she is lucky; she had clocked enough time in the system to begin tapping into her pension, though at a reduced rate. She watched others with much less security enter a competitive job market.
"People always thought state workers don't get laid off," said Evans. "The truth is, we do and we always have. It just happens so quietly."
Her work has meaning
Johnson, the hygienist, has worked in the private sector. She made more money there while working fewer hours.
But Johnson said she craved meaning in her work. After leaving private practice, she worked in the state's prison system, offering dental care to prisoners, many of whom had been neglecting their oral hygiene since childhood. There, she realized the importance of catching these problems early.
This month at Boone Trail Elementary School in Harnett County, she coaxed shy children closer and shined a flashlight in their mouths to see whether they'd visited a dentist since she sent a note home to their parents. Last fall, she flagged major dental problems in 76 children, about 14 percent of the student body.
"I meet children who have no idea how to use a toothbrush," Johnson said.
Slump hurts tooth care
In the last two years, she has noticed more cavities, more infections, all signs of poor oral hygiene and lack of dental care.
She knows the economy is the root. As families lost their jobs, they lost their insurance. When families struggle, Johnson said, dental care always falls to the bottom of the priority list.
Johnson knows how tight money has become for families. Her husband, a correctional officer for 18 years, left the state a few years ago because he found a job with better benefits. With two young children, a mortgage and a long commute for both her and her husband, Johnson's family needs her income.
Johnson said she is not angry that the state needs to tighten its belt, and she's convinced she will land on her feet if she is ousted. She's aggravated, though, that budget cuts could come at the expense of a program that is needed more now than ever.
"It's just another thing that our children will have to suffer because we didn't plan the right way," Johnson said.
Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed to this report.
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