Local Politics

State Budget: More Money, More Needs

Posted May 14, 2007 6:40 p.m. EDT
Updated May 14, 2007 7:15 p.m. EDT

— The annual state budget has ballooned in recent years, jumping by $5 billion since 2003. Some lawmakers point to the budget growth as a sign that cutbacks are needed.

Lawmakers are working on a $20.3 billion budget for the coming year, a 38 percent increase from the $14.7 billion budget  lawmakers approved in 2003.

The state also increased its debt load by millions in recent years to pay for state building projects.

The budget growth far outstrips population growth. The state's population increased only 6 percent during the same period.

"We've spent 25 percent more money than we needed to keep up with population growth, plus inflation, over the last 10 years," said state Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake. "Something's wrong in the kitchen sounds like to me."

The kitchens of some neighboring states also appear to be cooking.

South Carolina's budget has grown 37 percent in the past five years, while its population has increased by 4.3 percent. In Georgia, the budget has increased 26 percent, and its population is up by 7.4 percent.

State Rep. Paul Luebke, who co-chairs the House Finance Committee, said salary increases for teachers and state employees account for the bulk of the budget increases in recent years.

"I would point out that 2003 was a terrible year for state employees and teachers. We weren't able to give any raise at all," said Luebke, D-Durham. "I don't think there's any North Carolinian out there who wouldn't want there to be automatic increases per extra child in the public schools."

Along with Medicaid costs, education -- from pre-kindergarten to college -- is the fastest-growing taxpayer burden.

Luebke pointed out that more than $300 million in the proposed house budget goes into the state's rainy day fund for emergencies.

About $300 million in the latest budget plan comes from increases to sales taxes and upper-income tax brackets that were supposed to be temporary. The Senate could still vote to phase them out.

"To be honest with the North Carolina voters, we need to do what we said we were going to do," Hunt said.

But special interests argue that the budget still doesn't provide enough money to meet important needs, such as transportation infrastructure and mental health services.

"If anything, we should have had more. The budget should have been bigger," Luebke said.