Legislative leaders talking about the budget have turned the phrase "everything is on the table" into an overworked cliché. Turns out it was true.
Legislative budget writers want significant spending cuts in all areas of government and want lawmakers working on the details to consider: capping university enrollments, closing or consolidating prisons and consolidating or eliminating the early education and health programs More at Four and Smart Start.
Republican leaders said they will spend significantly less than the $19.9 billion Gov. Bev Perdue proposed last week. In five broad categories, Republican legislative leaders want to spend $1.4 billion less than Perdue's budget proposed.
Republicans have a narrower target because they do not want to keep the temporary sales tax increase that Perdue included in her budget, which would raise $826.6 million in revenue. Legislators also decided they would not push millions in expenses on to local governments as Perdue did, said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Republican from Winston-Salem and a budget committee chairman.
No direct comparison to Perdue's budget is possible at this stage. The chief budget writers are leaving some big decisions for themselves, and the figures made public Wednesday do not include money that could be set aside for savings or spending on capital improvements and debt payments.
Budget committee chairmen said they want lawmakers working on the detailed plans to take a fresh look at all state spending and assume that nothing is immune.
"It's important that it's built from the bottom up, not the top down," said Harold Brubaker, an Asheboro Republican and chief House budget writer.
The lead budget writers challenged legislators to look hard at what the state pays for and determine whether it's a core government service or something someone else can do, Brunstetter said.
"Everything means something to somebody, so things do get politically charged," he said. "Nobody's promising it's going to be easy or pretty."
Democrats blasted the proposals, saying the cuts would devastate education. Some potential targets are already defending their programs.
Republicans cannot take $763 million out of Perdue's proposed education budget without damage, said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat.
The cuts would mean destruction of the state's good business climate, he said, because "it is so heavily dependent on excellence in universities, training in community colleges, and having schools people want to bring their families to North Carolina for. People don't want to come to a state and do business where those things aren't present."
Perdue fears more cuts
Chrissy Pearson, Perdue's spokeswoman, said they were worried that cuts deeper than Perdue proposed would cost teachers and teacher assistants their jobs and weaken mental health services and job creation programs.
Some cost-saving ideas mirroring the budget writers' interests are already being considered. For example, the university system is already thinking about linking funding to performance markers such as graduation rates. And slowing enrollment may already be in play because Perdue's budget proposal would provide just half of what UNC leaders say they need next year. Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's governing board, has said that the university may be open to easing enrollment growth if money's tight.
The state already promotes two years of community college as a low-cost stepping stone to universities.
If legislators want to widen that path, the question is whether the state would provide added funding so community colleges could handle substantial enrollment growth, said Linda Weiner, a vice president at the community college system.
"If we have the resources that we can work worth with in order to accomplish this goal, we can do it," Weiner said. "We just need the resources to go along with it."
Perdue's budget proposal would fund community college enrollment growth at 52 percent of the system's request of $34 million. That is essentially an immediate cut because community colleges are funded a year after students are served.
Smart Start, an early childhood education, health and family support program, and the preschool program More at Four are constant targets for cuts. Last year, legislators considered combining the two programs.
Smart Start has a broad statewide network and plenty of supporters who will testify to its importance and effectiveness, said Stephanie Fanjul, president of the N.C. Partnership for Children, the organization that oversees the programs.
"I think we're eager to tell our story," she said. "That's what I'm thinking will make a difference."
Staff writers Jane Stancill, Rob Christensen and Eric Ferreri contributed.
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