Lawmakers lament ‘unsustainable’ budget

By J.L. Pate

August 25, 2014

LAURINBURG – The $21 billion state budget recently signed into law “is unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible,’’ state Rep. Ken Goodman told about 50 people attending Friday’s legislative breakfast sponsored by the Laurinburg/Hoke County Chamber of Commerce.

Held at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church, the breakfast also included talks by state Rep. Garland Pierce and state Sen. Gene McLaurin. The three men represent Richmond and Scotland counties in the North Carolina General Assembly. All are Democrats, minority members of a Republican-controlled legislature.

Most of the remarks by the three addressed the legislature’s long “short session,’’ which began May 14 and did not adjourn until Aug. 20, and the budget signed last week by Gov. Pat McCrory.

The state’s $21 billion budget for 2014-15 includes $282 million for teacher pay raises — an average of 7 percent — but it also deletes millions in revenue from public health, childhood development and early education programs.

Goodman said state taxpayers had a contingency account of almost $400 million when talks began on the just-passed state budget, “and after we finished the budget, that amount was zero; we have no contingency fund.’’

“A big issue for me was funding for education and teacher pay,’’ Goodman said. “For this General Assembly, though, there was no revenue on the table’’ to work with. “And there we were, at the same time spending (almost) $300 million for teacher pay raises.’’

Goodman also reminded everyone that a law just passed will allow the state to begin issuing permits next March to allow exploration for natural gas using a method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,’’ which has caused considerable controversy in states such as Pennsylvania, where the practice has permanently polluted some water wells.

A new law to compel corporate giant Duke Energy to clean up coal ash heaps left as a toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity “is not perfect,’’ Goodman said, “but it’s a good start.’’

North Carolina, he said, is the first state to pass a law mandating the removal of coal ash heaps from hydro-electric generating sites.

Goodman’s remarks about the state’s new budget were endorsed by Pierce and McLaurin. Pierce said Scotland County and the southeast region as a whole are at a disadvantage in the budget process because “it’s rural against urban; that’s the real argument in the legislature.

“It’s hard to see how Scotland County residents are going to benefit from business growth in Wilmington or Charlotte,’’ said Pierce. “We have to fight in Raleigh to get what we do get. We have to be there because if you’re not at the table, you’re going to end up on the menu.’’

McLaurin, in his first General Assembly term, complained about the amount of time wasted in the short session, then the end-of-summer rush to get the budget passed before anyone really had much time to read it.

The last version of the budget “came to me at 8 a.m. — a $21 billion budget document — and I was told I had to vote on it by 3 p.m. that day. That’s not near enough time. There should be at least seven to 10 days to let the public see it before a final vote.

“I think it would be a good idea if every member of the General Assembly was required by law to have a public budget hearing in their respective distracts before the law is final,’’ said the senator, adding that such lengthy “short’’ terms could be avoided if a law was passed that sets deadlines for completing a state budget, after which legislators pay would stop whether the budget was complete or not.

“I think we’d see a lot get done in a reasonable amount of time,’’ he said.

Reach reporter J.L. Pate at 910-506-3171.