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Easley: Budget pleas 'falling on deaf ears'

Gov. Mike Easley said he's willing to fight for his budget priorities while legislative leaders continued to negotiate the state's spending plan on Sunday.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley stepped up the pressure – and rhetoric – on state lawmakers Sunday, saying his message to balance the budget appears to be "falling on deaf ears" in the General Assembly.

Easley's staff met with House and Senate budget leaders Sunday as lawmakers returned to negotiations on the $21 billion spending plan. Easley, a Democrat negotiating his final budget as North Carolina's chief executive, opposes some of the tax relief measures that lawmakers have agreed to, including an expansion of the earned income tax credit for the working poor and the elimination of the state's gift tax, which favors wealthier citizens.

Those two plans, brokered in budget negotiations between top Democrats last week, would cost some $31 million in lost revenue in the coming year.

Top budget negotiators had made little progress by late Sunday, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Hackney said. The two chambers were focused on resolving their own disagreements before considering Easley's concerns.

"They're working to get an agreement between the two chambers, and they'll see where they're at," Holmes said.

"Well, part of the problem is there is so many people up here. People say, ‘Why can’t you make some of these decisions more quickly?’ I say, ‘If you have a family of four, how long does it take for you to decide where you are going to dinner or where you are going on vacation, or if and when?'” said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, the Senate's chief budget-writer. "So these are people who have all been elected from their districts. They all deserve to be heard. They all have good ideas about how to run a government and a lot if this is debate and compromise. It's something everybody has to do."

Teachers are among the top casualties of the budget negotiations and tax relief, Easley said, arguing that lawmakers want to give beginning teachers an annual pay increase of $470 while other state employees would get $1,100 or more.

"Teachers get shafted in this budget," Easley said in a statement. "This comes in a year when the legislature had promised to take teachers to the national average in pay and we have a significant teacher shortage that is projected to grow dramatically. This is mind boggling."

The governor has warned that tax collections for the coming fiscal year will probably be about $70 million less than projected. He said leaders need to find sensible ways to fill the budget gap.

"I want to be clear - the budget must be balanced and have the right priorities for me to sign it," Easley said.

"We're trying to reach an agreement," said Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford.

There are other options to make up the difference, such as putting less money in reserve funds or reducing agency spending.

Though the new fiscal year begins Tuesday, a final bill likely won't get to Easley's desk by then. Government operations would continue because the budget only adjusts the second year of a two-year budget passed last summer.

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