Agencies in limbo awaiting state budget

By: - July 20, 2005 5:24 am

Statesville Record & Landmark
By Carrie J. Sidener

Iredell County agencies are still in limbo, waiting for the N.C. General Assembly to pass its budget.

The General Assembly voted once again to move its budget deadline to Aug. 5 in hopes that the House and Senate can come to an agreement. The budget is currently in conference committee.

Meanwhile, agencies like Iredell-Statesville Schools, Appropriate Punishment Options and the Department of Social Services are waiting to see if the proposed cuts they have been bracing for will be a reality.

“All of our representatives say they voted against the budget, but I don’t see them doing anything to fix it,” said I-SS Superintendent Terry Holliday. “You’d think with eight votes, we can stir the water somewhere, but I don’t hear where they have come up with any solutions.”

Holliday said the proposed budget that came from both the House and Senate included cuts that could mean fewer teachers.

“We are looking at spending less per pupil than in the previous year,” Holliday said, adding that he’s unsure of how much will be cut.

Holliday said that in the 1970s, more than half the state’s budget went to education. Now, it’s less than 40 percent.

“The piece of the pie keeps getting smaller and smaller, but they keep adding requirements,” Holliday said. “It seems that public education is becoming less and less of a priority to the General Assembly.”

The budget is in conference committee, which consists of members of the House and Senate that voted for the budget, said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-36th).

“There has been a lot of negotiating, speculation, game playing and strategic thinking that goes into developing a budget,” Hartsell said. “The House, the Senate and the governor, its a matter of putting these three pieces together.”

Sen. Jim Forrester (R-41st) said no Republicans sit on the conference committee that is working on the budget because no Republicans voted for the proposed budget.

“None of the Republicans voted for this budget because it includes all these fees,” Forrester said. “The feds have shifted the burdens to the state, the state to the counties and the only thing the counties can do is raise taxes.”

Rep. Julia Howard (R-79th) said she is not on the conference committee because she didn’t vote for the budget.

“I didn’t think it was in the best interests of the people of North Carolina,” she said. “There are a tremendous amount of tax increases and fees that people are not aware of.”

Instead of waiting for word from Raleigh, Pam Navey, director of Appropriate Punishment Options Inc., has been trying to educate legislators on her program in hopes of saving it.

The program takes criminals who could be sentenced to an active prison term and, with the courts approval, puts them in counseling or other programs to help end the cycle of crime, Navey said. It receives $93,000 – or 72 percent of its budget – from the state.

The House budget provides $2.5 million for the statewide program as opposed to the $3.68 million it received last year. The Senate budget cuts it completely.

“If they cut us by one third, we will not be able to keep the office open because we won’t have enough to cover rent and salaries,” Navey said. “I am grateful that they have reinstated us to $2.5 million. It’s better than nothing.”

Navey said the options include an across the board cut to each APO office or the closing of some offices.

“We could come out unscathed, but I don’t think that will happen,” Navey said. “But miracles have happened.”

The House’s budget proposed providing $15 million to offset the county’s portion of Medicaid as well as adding some cuts to the system.

Don Wall, director of Iredell County’s Department of Social Services, said the cuts – including a more than $60 million cut that would freeze provider payment rates – could make it more difficult for Medicaid patients to find a doctor.

“The providers may limit the number of Medicaid recipients they serve,” Wall said. “Any decrease in funding services would adversely affect the Medicaid recipient. … Someone will get hurt and it will be the Medicaid recipient.”

One the other hand, Wall said the program needs some control as the expenses keep rising. He said the program accounts for 79 percent of the DSS budget.

“I don’t have the wisdom of Solomon, but that is who we need to figure this out,” Wall said.

The House’s proposed budget also includes almost $1 billion in additional revenue by increasing the cigarette tax by 25 cents per pack, and applying full sales tax rates to movies and live entertainment, according to the N.C. Justice Center.

The points of contention in the budget include whether or not to reduce Medicaid services, addressing public education needs, pay raises for state employees and whether or not to reduce taxes on the wealthy and corporations, according to the N.C. Justice Center.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066