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Now the boss, NC GOP to tackle tough budget picks

The General Assembly resumes work shortly under complete Republican management for the first time in 141 years, facing acute choices on balancing North Carolina's budget due to GOP campaign promises and Democratic reliance on new taxes and federal funds.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The General Assembly resumes work shortly under complete Republican management for the first time in 141 years, facing acute choices on balancing North Carolina's budget due to GOP campaign promises and Democratic reliance on new taxes and federal funds.

Republicans who grabbed Senate and House majorities through a 27-seat surge on Election Day arrive in Raleigh ready to tackle a list of issues they believe their supporters want acted upon. Those include restricting involuntary annexations, expanding charter schools, repealing national health care reform and requiring voters to show identification at the polls.

They also are resolute on ending what they see as too much government meddling in the economic recovery from the Great Recession.

"I really do think that this is a new era," said Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherfordton, one of 33 first-term Republicans taking up seats in the legislature when the gavels sound at noon Wednesday. "My constituents elected me to be conservative. They elected me to make North Carolina a conservative state."

The new leadership was eager to get started, assigning offices, seats and committee assignments before the session opens. It's typically weeks after the start of session before that's finalized.

"The goal is for senators and representatives to be in their office at work Day One, in their permanent seats," said Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake. "We've got a big task ahead of us. There's no time to waste. Got to get to work."

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has moved into the Senate president pro tempore's office that has been occupied for much of the past two decades by retiring Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare.

"The first day is going to look a whole lot like other first days," Berger said Monday.

Her and other incoming GOP leaders are aiming their immediate focus on eliminating a projected $3.7 billion gap for the budget year starting July 1 – a whopping 19 percent of the current year's budget. They've pledged to do so without raising taxes or extending $1.3 billion in temporary taxes approved in 2009 by the Democratic-led legislature and Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Another $1.6 billion in stimulus funds from Washington used by Democrats to close the budget gap also have dried up. Democrats also already made reductions in 2009 and 2010 that were easier to find or shifted money around to preserve positions.

"The numbers, where they'll be again, is something that will require a more deliberate process than we've engaged in up to this point," Berger said.

With education and Medicaid comprising three-quarters of the budget, there's little doubt that services and teacher and state employee positions are headed to the chopping block. State education officials alone have offered scenarios where funding for 5,300 public school positions and 1,000 university faculty positions would be lost with 10 percent cuts.

"To say that it's not going to hurt people and it's going to be painless, that's not the real world," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, an expected education budget-writer these next two years. "The real world is we can't spend money that we don't have."

Such dire pronouncements worry people such as Nancy Ormond of Henderson, whose 36-year-old daughter Leigh Anne is diagnosed with mental retardation and cerebral palsy. She's happy and contributing to society through a Medicaid program for 11,000 patients statewide that pays for her to attend a vocational program four days a week. Leigh Anne earns a little bit of money, part of which she spends on manicures.

"It's wonderful. It gives her a sense of her own identity," Ormond said.

But the federal government doesn't require the state to offer the Community Alternatives Program for the mentally retarded. The state spent $149 million this year on the optional service, which state health officials proposed to Perdue as a potential place to scale back if cuts are needed. Ormond, herself with a heart condition, worries that, without the program, Leigh Anne could end up in a group home or institution when she and her husband are too sick to care for her.

Ormond said people like her daughter are "entitled to be a part of the world, to be part of the community, just like anybody else."

Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, expected to be elected House speaker Wednesday, said his GOP colleagues will examine the $1.1 billion in optional Medicaid services the state provides but wants more information before deciding whether such reductions make sense.

"There are many people who believe that North Carolina's Medicaid has expanded the services that it covers beyond what is core to trying to preserve and protect public health," Tillis said.

On public education, GOP lawmakers also are talking about giving local school districts less overall money but more spending flexibility to protect what's most important to them to reduce the number of personnel cuts.

"The local systems should have more discretion in education to decide where the money's spent," Berger said, but "we've got to be careful in terms of how broad that discretion is."

Democrats, in the minority in both chambers for the first time in more than a century, say they'll speak out against what they call any efforts by Republicans to damage public school classrooms and higher education. Although fellow Democrat Perdue has said she doesn't want temporary sales and income taxes extended either, outgoing House Speaker Joe Hackney said some of the state's fiscal troubles could be eased by keeping the taxes in place.

"Many of the Republicans are still moving along on campaign rhetoric rather than a mathematical reality," said Hackney, D-Orange, the new minority leader. "Most of our folks feel that when you're faced with cutting thousands of school teachers and cutting longtime state employees ... you should not be cutting taxes."

Perdue will present her own two-year budget to lawmakers by late next month at the earliest and holds a veto stamp she's used just once in her first two years in office. But the GOP bloc only needs to persuade four Democrats to join them to pass veto-proof bills.

"We'll work together, I hope," Perdue said recently.

Republicans such as Tillman believe that voters have put the GOP on a tight leash and could easily throw them out if they don't like the direction the new majority takes. But it's been too long since they were in charge not to use their ideas to change government and the state.

"We've been praying for 120 years to get on this train and now, and we want to give it a shot and see if we can make it work., Tillis said.


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