Perdue edges toward a fight for schools and human services

Perdue edges toward a fight for schools and human services

- in Fitzsimon File

The battle lines over the state budget became a little clearer this week as Governor Beverly Perdue expressed her grave concern about the damage that could result from addressing next year's $3.7 billion shortfall with cuts alone.

Perdue made a point at a Tuesday news conference of saying that her earlier vows not to raise taxes did not rule out a recommendation to continue the temporary tax increases approved in 2009 that are set to expire June 30th.

Her remarks came just a day after incoming Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger restated his position that no taxes should be raised to address the shortfall and that the temporary taxes should end.

Most members of the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate promised during the campaign that they would not raise taxes to balance the budget or keep the 2009 temporary tax increases on the books.

Berger refused to name any specific budget cuts he would support. Incoming House Majority Leader Paul Stam said recently he had identified $3.1 billion in cuts but also declined to offer any specifics.

A budget with no new revenue would mean lawmakers would have to find $3.7 billion in cuts after cutting the budget by $3.55 billion in the last two years. That's a scenario Perdue is clearly uncomfortable with, telling reporters Tuesday that she didn't want to put 50 kids in a classroom or fire mental health workers.

It was Perdue's most pointed remarks to date about the possible damage a cuts only budget could do to vital state institutions like public schools and human services.

It seems to signal that the budget she plans to submit next month will be a balanced package of cuts and revenue, with most of the money raised from keeping at least the one cent sales tax passed in 2009.

That would bring in roughly a billion dollars. She is reportedly also considering recommending a significant increase in the state tobacco tax, long a goal of public health advocates. A dollar increase would bring raise several hundred million dollars a year. Perdue also reported that state revenue growth was more robust than predicted, which may mean a slightly smaller shortfall to handle.

Maybe just as important as Perdue leaving the door open to keeping the temporary taxes on the books and the positive news about the revenue growth was the way Perdue talked about the budget. She was more animated than usual when she pledged to protect education and human services.

Polls released recently by AARP and Together NC, a large coalition of nonprofit groups, service providers, and grassroots organizations showing strong public support for raising revenues to protect key services had to help.

And a Together NC letter to Perdue calling on her to recommend a balanced budget to lawmakers instead of a "job-killing, cuts-only approach" couldn't have hurt either.

Whatever the reason, Perdue seems more ready to take a stand to protect schools and services to the most vulnerable people in the state than she has been in a long time, even if it means finding new revenue or leaving existing taxes in place.

She also appears ready to take that message to the people of the state, which is vitally important. She's the one with the bully pulpit who can make the choices clear to the public, a cuts only budget that fires thousands of teachers and ends services for seniors and people with disability or a balanced approach that combines significant cuts with new revenue to protect schools and people who rely on the state's social safety net.

Perdue didn't endorse any new taxes Tuesday or even say for certain that she will keep the temporary taxes on the books. We'll know for sure next month when she releases her budget proposal. But she's seems headed in that direction and it's the right one.

Republicans so determined to slash and burn their way through public education and human services to balance the budget may soon have a quite a fight on their hands.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.