Senate GOP will tweak House budget

Legislative leaders want to get closer to agreed-upon targets but ease off on cuts to UNC.

Staff writersMay 4, 2011 

  • The House of Representatives is expected to pass its budget today. It's a far cry from what Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue presented earlier this year, but Senate Republicans say it doesn't go far enough and have promised more cuts. They will began debating the budget proposal next week and plan a vote by June 1.

    Here's a look at the numbers so far.

    Perdue's budget: $19.9 billion

    House budget: $19.3 billion

    Perdue's education budget: $11.2 billion

    House education budget: $10.7 billion

    Perdue's health and human services budget: $4.7 billion

    House health and human services budget: $4.5 billion

The House has not formally passed its $19.3 billion budget, but Senate Republicans know already they want some trims.

Republican legislators were talking about changes to the House proposal even before the floor debate began Tuesday.

The budget passed a preliminary House vote by a veto-proof 72-47 tally. Shortly before the vote, at least three people were removed from the gallery and handcuffed after they began chanting, "Money for jobs and education, not to bail out corporations." Companions identified the three as students and members of the group N.C. Defend Education Coalition.

Most Democrats chafed at the GOP cuts, but House Republicans overshot the spending targets that lead budget writers set a few months ago. The House budget calls for spending higher than the targets in all broad categories from education to justice.

Rep. Harold Brubaker, the House budget writing chief, said the totals were skewed by accounting moves, such as the transfer of highway funds that pay state troopers to the state treasury.

The budget represents a determination that the state learn to live within its means, Brubaker told his colleagues. "The budget is right-sizing government," he said.

Senate leader Phil Berger said his chamber's budget will come closer to those pre-set targets, and will probably give more to the UNC system. The House cut state universities by about $447 million, or 15.5 percent.

Senate budget subcommittees will begin discussing the House budget next week and expect to have a final vote on its own version by June. 1.

Senate leaders said they have not settled on a UNC budget, but system leaders are hoping for total cuts of no more than 10 percent to 11 percent.

"At that level, we feel we can manage and navigate our way through, and we can recover without permanent damage to the university," Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors, said Tuesday. "We've already cut a lot, and we're willing to cut more to be a good partner."

UNC leaders have lobbied hard in recent weeks against proposed House provisions like a two-year prohibition on tuition increases as well as a sizable decrease in need-based financial aid.

The House would cut $35 million from the pot of grant money doled out to needy public university students. That's a far cry from the $36 million in new funding that UNC requested be added. Gov. Bev Perdue's budget plan would keep funding at the current level, $162 million.

Reducing need-based aid makes education considerably less accessible, Gage argues.

"This is how you take the 'public' out of 'public education,'" she said. "You don't provide financial aid, tuition goes higher, and the door begins to close."

Democrats worried

The talk of a cut to the overall House plan made Senate Democrats anxious. Democrats want a bigger budget and fewer state employee layoffs.

Democrats contend that the House budget will cost 30,000 state jobs.

Republicans say those layoff projections are greatly exaggerated, because they do not take into account vacant positions and natural turnover due to retirement and other career changes.

"Employment with the state is not about jobs," said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat. "It's about serving people. But on the other hand, if in fact the estimates are right and we're fixin' to do away with 30,000 jobs in this state, that's about three-quarters of a percent on the unemployment rate. I'm concerned about what that will do to the economy."

Budget protests began in earnest Tuesday. Teachers and other school workers filled the mall across from the Legislative Building in late afternoon, chanting "No more cuts."

The state Democratic Party publicized its "Promise of Public Education" video that paints Democrats as defenders of education and Republican legislative leaders as the agents of its destruction.

Earlier, a dozen people in period dress took turns circling the state government complex in a horse and buggy to drive home the message that the GOP budget takes the state back in time. Together NC sponsored the demonstration.

Preschool programs

The House debated dozens of amendments over more than nine hours. Democratic women failed to change a budget provision that would ban the state health plan from paying for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.

Democrats failed to win a temporary reprieve of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, an office that pays for anti-smoking and anti-obesity programs with money from the national tobacco settlement.

Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and a chief budget writer, said his chamber won't offer dramatic changes, but senators are talking about putting more into education by using some of the money that the House leaves unspent.

Senators are also examining one of the controversial moves in the House budget, which puts the pre-kindergarten program More at Four under the control of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

"Smart Start and More at Four are definitely up in the air," he said.

Senators are thinking of moving More at Four back to the state Department of Public Instruction, and transferring the early childhood program Smart Start to DPI.

"To me, it's an education thing," Hunt said. "Smart Start and More at Four need to go into education and put all in one organizational structure."

Senate Republicans want to come up with a plan that will win support from Democrats, including Perdue, he said.

"We're all after the same goal," Hunt said. "Hopefully, we can get there."

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

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