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Perdue protects education in new budget proposal

Governor Bev Perdue unveiled a budget proposal Thursday that would cleave $3.2 billion from state spending over the next two years, slashing 10,000 state jobs but protecting education funding.

The plan, which aims to close an estimated $2.7 billion budget deficit by reorganizing state government and cutting funding to state agencies, would also lower the corporate tax rate from 6.9 percent to 4.9 percent—making it the third lowest in the country and the lowest in the Southeast. Although the cuts would affect most government services, the governor drew a line in the sand with regards to education. The $19.9 billion proposal would preserve all state-funded teacher and teacher assistant positions.

“This budget stands up to our economic challenges and equips us for the future by resetting how we grow jobs, educate our children and operate state government,” Perdue said in a statement. “The cuts are deep, and some are painful. But through careful management of our resources we can also make investments in our core priorities.”

State lawmakers had mixed reactions to the proposal, which the governor presented to the GOP-controlled legislature Thursday afternoon.

“There were some parts of it I liked; most of it I did not,” said Republican state Sen. Brent Jackson, who represents Duplin, Lenoir and Sampson counties. “I didn’t think she went far enough. It doesn’t appear we’re going to be cutting that many employees off the state’s payroll since 70 percent of those positions are [vacant] already.”

Democrats expressed strong support for Perdue’s plan and said they hoped the Republican leadership will be willing to compromise.

“Overall the proposal looks good,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr., D-Durham. “I think her idea of consolidating a number of departments into one agency is intriguing.”

Democratic Whip Josh Stein, who represents Wake County, said he was very pleased that the proposal protects education funding, calling it “the most important part of our state budget.”

Republican leaders, though, indicated that there will be at least some education funding cuts in the legislature’s budget bill, which will be hammered out in the coming weeks.

“Everything will be touched most likely,” said state Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake and co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for crafting the bill. “Education is 60 percent of the budget—it will be touched.”

North Carolina per-pupil funding for K–12 education ranks 42nd among the 50 states, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina, but Republicans argue that insufficient funding is not the problem.

“Do you think education is achieving its goals? I don’t think so,” said state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and a member of the Appropriations on Education Committee. “We need results based on performance rather than just dumping money into a system and hoping that it works. If you don’t know where you want to go, you can’t get there—we need a focused approach.”

A new agenda

In control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1896, Republicans are moving forward on a host of conservative priorities.

One of the first bills introduced in the House attacks President Barack Obama’s health care reform, which requires individuals to purchase health insurance beginning in 2014. The proposed legislation directs State Attorney General Roy Cooper to “bring or defend” a suit arguing that the health care law is unconstitutional. Several states have already brought similar suits.

Another bill seeks to require that all voters possess a valid photo ID. Although some advocacy groups like the NAACP have argued that a voter ID law could discourage minorities from voting, Republican lawmakers argue that it is necessary to prevent voter fraud.

“When you cash a check, when you go to buy beer, when you go to do most anything in life, you’ve got to show who you are,” Stevens said. “And why not for one of the most important things we do, which is to vote, that you be able to identify who you are?”

As the party in power, the GOP is also charged with redrawing district boundaries for the legislature and the state’s congressional seats based on the 2010 census results. Although some Democrats have expressed concern that the GOP will use its control of the process, which only takes place every 10 years, to draw favorable district lines, Republican lawmakers said they are committed to being fair.

“There are Republicans and Democrats on the [Redistricting] Committee,” said Rucho, who chairs the committee. But, he noted, the group is stacked two-to-one in favor of Republicans, a reflection of the overall composition of the legislature.

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