GOP budget slices state jobs

The House proposal would cut deeply into higher education and reorganize state agencies.

Staff writersApril 13, 2011 

Budget proposals presented Tuesday offered a view of how Republicans plan to reshape government: fewer state employees, potentially larger class sizes in middle and high schools, and fewer social services.

House budget writers propose to cut the UNC system budget by 15.5 percent, eliminate hundreds of jobs in state agencies, raise court fees and make ferry passengers pay to ride.

The full extent of the House reductions is not known because decisions about statewide issues such as employee salaries, the state pension plan and building repairs are still to be made. House Speaker Thom Tillis said the House budget will include a cut to the corporate income tax rate, as did Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue's.

But the proposals bring into focus a new era of fiscal austerity as the House works to fill a budget hole estimated at $1.9 billion to $2.6 billion.

"We wanted to do the best we could to continue to provide core services," said Rep. Jeff Barnhart of Cabarrus County, a chief budget writer. They aimed to keep teachers in the classroom, continue health services, and provide for the justice system, he said.

Democrats said the cuts were far too deep.

House Minority Leader Joe Hackney said the proposed cuts are devastating to every area of state government.

"I think this is a terrible, terrible budget," he said.

House members working on the budget will discuss the proposals for the next few weeks, with a full House vote near the end of this month. The proposal then moves to the Senate, which will have its own proposal.

The House proposal cuts about 10 percent, or about $1.2 billion, from education. Education spending accounts for about 60 percent of the state budget.

State universities would absorb a 15.5 percent cut, elementary and secondary education an 8.5 percent reduction, and community colleges 10 percent.

UNC President Tom Ross said the system cuts "could not be absorbed without inflicting irreparable damage to our academic quality and reputation."

Ross said the reductions would mean eliminating 3,200 faculty and staff positions across the university system and narrowing available courses.

Senate budget writers will likely seek smaller university cuts.

Cuts to K-12 education

The House budget fully funds the enrollment for the K-12 system. Perdue proposed to pay less per student, and push some of the expense onto local districts, but House budget writers decided not to go along with that idea.

But school district administrators would have to find $347 million in savings on their own.

Under the proposal, the state would pay for fewer teacher assistants, assistant principals, and classroom supplies. Looking at proposed cuts to counselors, media specialists, administrators and teacher assistants, state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson was struck by how many fewer adults would be working in schools.

The reductions that districts will have to find on their own, coupled with a prohibition on increasing class sizes in grades K-3 make it likely that classes in middle and high schools will grow, Atkinson said.

"It's almost as if we're putting public education in the reverse gear rather than putting public education into drive where we can continue to really make progress," she said.

The House proposal also would slash budgets for courts, public safety and prisons by about 10 percent, while making sweeping changes to how the agencies are organized.

Slashing state jobs

It cuts hundreds of jobs from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and proposes to cut about 11 percent from the state health and human services budget. But it keeps all hospitals and other facilities open.

"We wanted to preserve core services and direct services to patients," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican.

The proposal would eliminate 372 jobs, most of them vacant positions and squeeze about $80 million in savings from Community Care of North Carolina, a program that coordinates treatment for Medicaid patients.

Providers are working closely with the state to reduce costs, Dollar said.

In February, Perdue presented a $19.9 billion budget plan that would eliminate thousands of state jobs and dozens of programs, but would avoid cutting any state-paid K-12 teachers and teacher assistants by keeping a portion of the temporary sales tax due to expire this year. Republicans who control the legislature criticized Perdue for wanting to hold on to the temporary tax.

Staff writers Bruce Siceloff and Michael Biesecker contributed to this report.

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

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