Advocates fear GOP lawmakers will target DHHS for cuts

Posted January 27, 2011 6:54 p.m. EST
Updated January 27, 2011 7:11 p.m. EST

— The new Republican leadership in the General Assembly wasted no time in the opening days of the legislative session spelling out their spending priorities as the state faces a projected $3.7 billion deficit.

"I believe government needs to be as small as possible to provide for people's safety, to provide for education and to provide for infrastructure – and not much else," House Speaker Thom Tillis said Wednesday.

The sentiment, which was echoed by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, has caused alarm among social services advocates who feel the state Department of Health and Human Services will lose out as lawmakers try to balance the budget.

"It's clear health care is an afterthought," said Adam Linker, a policy analyst with the North Carolina Health Access Coalition.

Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said he considers health care part of public safety, and Berger said he considers DHHS a funding priority and dismissed concerns that the budget would target the agency for cuts.

"I don't think you can read too much into that. (Not mentioning DHHS) is probably an inadvertent slip," said Berger, R-Rockingham.

DHHS is the second-largest piece of the state budget, trailing only education.

Tillis said that lawmakers will ask about each line item expenditure as they work through the budget process.

"We're going to make cut decisions at that level, not broad-based program cuts, not broad-based departmental cuts that they're so accustomed to," he said.

Berger said, however, that lawmakers will look at everything in making budget cuts, "including entire programs."

Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin, said he's troubled by whispers of pending cuts he has heard in the legislature.

"I have grave concerns," said Doug Berger, who used to oversee the DHHS budget committee in the Senate. "(I've heard) perhaps the elimination of entire programs, such as Smart Start and home health care. I think all these things would be disastrous for the state."

Social services advocates also expressed concern about the Republicans' hard line on taxes. The GOP has said it wants temporary sales and income taxes approved two years ago to expire, and it won't support any new tax increases to help close the budget gap.

"If they are honestly going to eliminate the one-cent sales tax, then they just can't close a $3.7 billion budget hole without slashing health and human services," Linker said.

"The people with mental health issues have nowhere to go but state government," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

Tillis said he would like people to withhold judgment for a month so lawmakers can get the budget process started.

"Give us the opportunity to go out there to get to those lower levels of budget decisions and expenditures and let us make assessments to the extent they're core (or) non-core, and then judge us on that basis," he said.