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Opinion Avoiding bad budget decisions

RALEIGH -- When state legislators are sworn in this week, Republicans will control both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in more than a century.

Their main task will be addressing the state's budget woes, putting together a balanced budget for the next fiscal year that will – without the extension of temporary tax hikes adopted in 2009 – require something on the order of $2 billion in real cuts.

Legislative Republicans are talking about the state's fiscal problems as an opportunity to put state government right, to focus on core services and follow through on a philosophy of limited government.

Optimism is a wonderful thing, ain’t it?

North Carolinians should hope that the state's financial predicament doesn’t instead turn into an opportunity for all kinds of silliness or budget sleight-of-hand that will come back to haunt the state later.

Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican leaders in the legislature have made clear that they aren’t interested in extending the $1 billion in tax hikes that are scheduled to expire on July 1.

That doesn’t mean that either Perdue or legislators won’t look for some other revenue to try to close the budget gap.

One potential source of money is video poker.

Legislators have been trying to ban video poker parlors for several years, only to have judges revive the largely unregulated gambling halls. Parlor owners, meanwhile, have been calling for taxation of their operations in order to try gain political support for their permanent legalization.

With money in short supply, those siren calls are more likely to bring in a few ships. Or, Perdue or legislators could push for state-operated video poker.

But will North Carolina really be a better place by giving state sanction to mini-casinos on any street corner? Do we now aspire to be South Carolina pre-2002?

Another way to improve the state’s bottom line is to simply get rid of some of your financial obligations.

Local government officials worry that one way legislators might accomplish that feat is to transfer responsibility for construction and maintenance of secondary roads to them. In 2009, a bill with Republican and Democratic sponsors would have done just that.

To county governments, the hit could be substantial. More than $390 million was spent on secondary road construction and maintenance during the 2008-09 fiscal year.

Another budget-balancing possibility making the rounds in Raleigh is a 10-percent, across-the-board salary cut for state workers.

After all, private sector workers have suffered in the down economy. Why shouldn’t state workers share some pain? Policymakers also see a salary cut as an alternative to substantial state worker layoffs.

They may be right in some cases.

But how does a salary cut fit with finding and cutting areas of government that are non-essentially or duplicative?

Republicans asked for this job. No one said it was going to be easy, and they shouldn’t be looking for any easy outs.


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