Local News

GOP leader: Budget, education top action items in new session

Posted January 24, 2011 7:48 p.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2011 8:26 a.m. EST

— When he was asked how this year’s historic legislative session will be different, incoming Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger couldn’t resist a quip.

“Well, I’ve never had as many of you show up for something like this before,” Berger laughed. “In fact, I couldn’t even give tickets away.”

For the past two sessions, Berger has been minority leader, happy for any press attention he could get. Now, he’s on center stage as the first Republican Senate leader in more than a century.

“It’s different, there’s no question about that. I feel humbled by the attention that we’ve received from this. I feel happy for the people that have, from a philosophical standpoint and a political standpoint, supported us over the years in terms of accomplishing this," he said.

Opening Day is usually largely ceremonial, and that won’t change. But both chambers plan to get to work much more quickly than in recent years.

WRAL.com will stream the opening ceremonies from both the House and Senate Wednesday beginning at noon.

Next week, Berger said, House and Senate lawmakers will start work on several action items. The first is a proposal to give Gov. Bev Perdue more power over the budget, something she’s asked for in the past. She has proposed to cut spending in the current fiscal year to give legislators more of a cushion moving into the 2011 budget.

Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson says the governor hasn’t yet seen the proposal, but is looking forward to learning more about it.

“She’s had conversations with them about ways to balance the budget earlier. This is all about positioning the state better for future fiscal years – it’s all about finding the efficiencies and savings we can now," Pearson said.

Charter schools will be another early action item. Berger said lawmakers will seek to eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

And he said the proposal may include other policy changes, too, including the possibility of moving charter school oversight out of the Department of Public Instruction, an agency some charter advocates believe is hostile to their cause.

Big bills

The two biggest issues of the session are likely to be redistricting and the budget. Berger said he's hoping both will move quickly. He’s aiming for a May deadline for the new voter maps, so they can be approved by federal officials well in advance of next year’s elections.

Perdue will start the budget process with her State of the State speech and her spending plan, due sometime in early February. Then the House will take it up, and then the Senate.

The current budget shortfall is estimated at $3.7 billion. Berger insisted that the gap can be closed with cuts, but he conceded it will be a painful process.

“For anyone to suggest that any part of the state budget is going to be immune from consideration for reductions – for anyone to say that nobody’s going to be laid off, there are not gonna be any reductions, I think is unrealistic," he said.

A big chunk of that shortfall will come from the June expiration of the temporary 1 percent sales tax, passed by Democrats in 2009. A PPP poll released Monday shows 71percent of voters would support extending the tax if it would help ease cuts to services.

But Berger was adamant: “The only poll that I’m interested is the one that’s conducted in November every other year. And the poll that was taken then was loud and clear. The people said ‘Stop spending. Don’t raise taxes.’ It’s not something that will be part of our proposal," he said.

House Republicans are also pledging to let the temporary tax expire, and so is Perdue. But aside from that, her spokeswoman said everything’s on the table.

"We are all in this together. The governor has had encouraging conversations with the new leadership. Her top two priorities remain creating jobs and protecting education. But the budget looms over everything," Pearson said.